In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Thomas Friedman called our generation “quiet.” Referring to us as “Generation Q,” he claimed that we are more idealistic than we should be and less politically involved than we need to be. Friedman pointed out that we will inherit serious national and global problems created by generations that have come before us: global warming, social security, the budget deficit. Most importantly, he questioned whether or not we would be able to handle these challenges, given our relatively subdued forms of activism.
In the article, he speaks not only to our generation as a whole but also specifically mentions Williams. After the initial burn wore off from being criticized for our lack of political engagement and knowledge, we started wondering: Is he right? Are we really a quiet, idealistic generation that has no idea how to voice our opinions and hold our politicians’ feet to the fire?
Rectifying this problem starts with recognizing the dichotomy that exists between student and administrative involvement in promoting civic engagement on college campuses, especially at a college like Williams. Admittedly, every student should be responsible for being a knowledgeable and informed citizen, and it is shocking how often we forget that a world exists beyond this place. How easily we become absorbed with the latest entry drama, mid-term, lab report or sports match â€“ naturally, these are all parts of the college experience. Still, we cannot neglect our responsibility beyond the intense but narrow scope of college life to be engaged citizens. We need to make a concerted effort to identify problems in our country that infuriate us and to engage issues that impassion us. We are quiet when it comes to matters that ignite emotion, rationalizing that we’ll deal with these problems when we’re out of college and in the real world.
But we forget: This is the real world.
Although at times it feels like we live under the giant rock that is Mount Greylock, spending our four years of college disengaged from the outside world need not be the norm. Self-selecting students do act as change-agents while at Williams: Thursday Night Group, Students for Social Justice, Education Reform and Advocacy and Public Health Alliance are just a few of the organizations on campus that promote dialogue about and effectively advocate for change concerning issues of our generation. While the Office for Community Engagement strives to connect civic-minded leaders with local government and non-profit organizations, the goals of many campus organizations are broader in scope. Because of the lack of institutionalized support for public service, the question always remains: Will these organizations, or forums for student voices like these, ever have any kind of lasting impact?
While we, as students, certainly must commit ourselves to actively engaging more with current affairs both on campus and as we venture beyond the Purple Valley, the task of cultivating a powerful student voice is one we cannot fulfill alone. The College’s senior staff are also responsible for providing the necessary resources to support and enable public service initiatives. Lack of a College-initiated, cohesive, stable venue for encouraging student involvement in public service and empowering those student voices that already exist sends the message that public service is just not a priority to the College.
Williams gives us so much; nevertheless, it is frustrating to see a pressing need for the College to promote student involvement in civic engagement go unfulfilled. Administrators seem to assume that because our voices are (currently) quiet, we are, as a whole, disinterested in being involved with the issues going on in the world around us. Perhaps it is this assumption that allows for the College to refrain from encouraging public service among students. One of the oft-perpetuated myths regarding Williams students is that we are wholly self-sufficient, highly intellectual and emotionally fully developed by the time we set foot on campus. This impression might lead College administrators to believe that if and when students envision change, we will successfully and independently effect lasting change ourselves, without needing help from established resources on campus. But that is just not true â€“ we do need help.
The students and administration of Williams College should work together to identify ways to amplify the voices of our generation. We, as students, must begin by helping ourselves â€“ altering the course of Generation Q â€“ by taking an active role in creatively and critically confronting the problems and challenges affecting the nation. In return, the College must recognize that relying on a select few students to generate opportunities for others is not enough; rather, it must provide a cohesive and consistent venue â€“ such as an appropriately funded and adequately staffed public service office â€“ through which students can find their authentic voices. Williams students and administrators must begin to show an explicit prioritization of civic involvement, turning our generation from quietly discontent to critically engaged.
Julia Kropp ’08 is an English and economics double major from San Francisco, Calif. Lindsay Moore ’09 is a psychology major and neuroscience concentrator from San Carlos, Calif.