Apathy at Williams – Who cares?

In his article entitled “Cluelessness on Campus,” Nashville Scene reporter Willy Stern ’83 writes “I spent the month of January at Williams College, where I taught two intensive courses, one in media ethics and another in investigative reporting. My students were, for the most part, nothing short of brilliant in classroom discussions and written exercises; they were thoughtful and engaging. As well, the ones in my courses were a self-selecting group, interested, presumably, in the news business.” The article goes on, “I started every class, which sometimes included both groups of students, by asking a series of trivia questions about the world, typically using material or topics from the front-page headlines of that day’s New York Times. The results are worth noting.” As a student in Willy’s class, I observed this very phenomenon on an almost daily basis. What surprised me were the dismal results. For example, only two of 17 students knew the name of the U.S. attorney general, three of 18 the U.S. secretary of state. It begged the question, “is this representative of Williams?” Furthermore, if the average Williams student is truly unaware, what does it say about political activism on campus?

Many students interviewed were clear when stating “Williams students are fairly out of touch.” Two such students are former Record executive editor Dan Elsea ’02 and Shenil Saya ’02. Said Saya, “In a lot of classes I’ve taken, I felt that people aren’t completely informed about situations, and their knowledge is often skewed toward one perspective.” According to Elsea, “it goes beyond people knowing only one perspective of an issue. I feel people just generally have very little idea of what is going on in the world,” though he insisted, “Williams is, unfortunately, better than most of the country.”

For comparison, I contacted students at peer schools. Matthew Ferraro, a sophomore at Yale University, wrote, “peers are generally in touch with world events. Most students get their news from either television, the Internet or newspapers – copies of the New York Times, USA Today and the Financial Times are available in the dining halls free of charge.” Though in terms of political activism, “Yalies tend to be more ‘politically interested’ than ‘politically active’. . .by and large, most students like to learn about current events and debate them among themselves rather than take their causes to the streets.”

Harvard sophomore Will Levine’s experience bears some similarity: “There is a distinct minority that is aware of world events; having said that, there are certainly a great deal of kids who know very little and are out of touch with world events.”

The majority of Williams students I talked to agreed with Levine. According to Marty Mudd ’04, “there are a few students who are really into it and there’s a significant number of the student body who has some kind of kind of political stance on most issues. . .real activism takes a lot of dedication and time that most Williams students don’t have.” Jane McCamant ’05 experiences just such a problem: “Personally, I don’t feel like I have time to stay informed, to read the newspaper.”

If there is anywhere a dearth of knowledge should become apparent, it’s in the classroom. Yet the professors contacted had a very different opinion than the students. Karen Merrill, assistant professor of history, has found that Williams students “are quite in touch with world events,” though she recognizes that her students are a self-selected group. Still, “because of their interest in domestic and international politics, I wouldn’t say they’re apathetic either. That doesn’t mean that the majority of them are politically active, and I’ve certainly picked up in my short time here a kind of widespread but formless cynicism about the state of political activity on the Williams campus.”

James McAllister, assistant professor of political science, sees the situation differently, “What is often defined as apathy is simply a lack of popular support for causes that some activist students and faculty want others to support. . ..the popular idea that if students only had more ‘knowledge’ about current issues and events they would be more politically active is also mistaken. . .greater knowledge [with regards to Israel/Palestine] would lead students to realize that the conflict is very complex and has elements of justice on both sides. This would innoculate them against the simplistic notions that one finds on both the Left and the Right; greater knowledge would lead to less overall political activism.”

The essential difficulty is the amorphous nature of an up-to-date student. Is it important for students to be aware of world events? Stern himself says “that’s the right question to ask, and I don’t know how to answer it.” In my experience, the question was met with an almost ubiquitous “yes.” Reasons varied, from Saya; “once people start thinking about the outside world and realizing that the outside world is suffering, that in itself is a good reason,” to Merrill; “it’s the one time in your life when you have the chance really to read and talk long and hard with your peers and professors about very difficult world questions.” McCamant disagrees, “I guess if you’re in a Poli Sci course, it’s good to better understand the issues you’re studying about, to know how they apply to the world today. But here in Williamstown, I think you can be pretty successful not worrying about the rest of the world.”