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Current college students dubbed Generation Q

Joseph McMahon | Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In the Oct. 10 issue of the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman said the current generation of college students has replaced real political activism and demonstrations with passive online forums. Dubbing them “the quiet generation,” Friedman said if in light of today’s huge budget, Social Security and ecological deficits students are “not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention.”

But are students really not paying attention, or are they expressing their opinions in different ways?

Friedman and several Notre Dame professors agree that today’s generation of college students tends to choose Internet-based mediums like blogs and YouTube videos as their primary outlet, rather than protests or strikes.

And that may not be such a bad thing, sociology professor Dan Myers said.

“The Internet enhances, not hinders, the work being done by college activists,” Myers said. “Things like blogs and forums allow people to learn more about an issue as well as engage in a discussion about that issue. The level of organization and communication that Internet allows for is unprecedented.”

His colleague, sociology professor Gene Hamilton, however, thinks the Internet has actually decentralized movements, as individuals can express their opinions without ever meeting people who share similar thoughts.

“The ever-increasing array of devices, especially those dealing with the Internet, supposedly offers more two-way communication between people. But really all we have done is develop more anonymous, impersonal relationships,” he said.

In his soon-to-be-released book “The Great Brainsuck,” Hamilton argues that while “we think the techno-culture of today’s world is putting a lot of information into our brains, in actuality it is emptying them.”

Hamilton and Friedman’s arguments have also been featured prominently in the Sept. 21 episode of “The Colbert Report,” where host Stephen Colbert sarcastically admonished the teenagers and college students who looked on as a University of Florida student was tased by security forces.

“Kids won’t stand idly by. They’ll go home and blog it,” Colbert said during the broadcast.

“I wish they’d stop tasering this guy so I could go home and watch this guy getting tasered on YouTube,” Colbert said, imitating the young adults’ reactions to the taser incident.

But the Internet – when used correctly – has the ability to advance traditional forms of protest, Hamilton said.

“You look at something like Moveon.org, which really would not be possible without the Internet, and you really have to be impressed with how they mobilize people through things like e-mails and blogs,” he said. “In fact, many groups now are using the Internet to coordinate political meetings and rallies, so in that sense it can be a very good thing for young political activists.”

Moveon.org, founded in 1998, has more than 3 million members, according to its Web site. The organization began as a protest against the excessive news coverage and taxpayers’ money that went into the investigation of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The group urged the government to “move on to pressing issues facing the nation,” the Web site said. The site has continued to grow since, now focusing on various issues.

And maybe that’s how today’s world addresses political debates.

Sociology professor Omar Lizardo said that if compared to the civil rights protests of the 1960s, today’s generation will inevitably – and unfairly – look apathetic.

“It really is the tyranny of the Baby Boomers,” Lizardo said. “The movements of the 1960s and 1970s were unique grassroots movements, whereas today everything is much more partisan. The idea that the current college generation is somehow more apathetic than previous generations simply because the discussions are taking place online instead of in the streets of Washington is completely false.”

At Notre Dame, students continue to show strong commitments to both political and non-political causes, but not with rallies or marches. Two weeks ago a demonstration was staged against abortion on South Quad, where 600 white crosses and 3600 blue and pink flags were erected.

“Notre Dame students have always shown a strong commitment to service programs,” sociology professor Robert Fishman said. “The level of political activity on the University’s campus is comparable to any other college, and although it may not be as open as the in 1960s, many students here still have deep commitments to various political causes.”

But even today, rallies are still popular avenues for protest in some cases. This summer, Myers said, the vast majority of the 15,000 people in attendance at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta, which focused on the effects of globalization, were people of collegiate age. Similarly, he said, the Christian right wing constantly has children and adolescents mobilized to demonstrate against abortion and gay marriage.

“There is a fair amount of activism out there,” Lizardo said. “It is just impossible to compare it, or activism from any other generation in the past one hundred years, to the level of activity that was seen during the 1960’s.”