As hazy O-Week days fade into real life here at Cornell, I’ve felt reinvigorated for a new school year. Buying notebooks, getting a real schedule and sitting in class can, frankly, feel burdensome later in the semester as stress mounts. But right now I’m happy to be back in this community that feels like home.
Accompanying the syllabi and T.A. introductions in my lectures are a popular professorial admonishment: the sometimes jovial, always judgmental call to activism. Left and right professors are encouraging me and my classmates to “do something” — and they’re not talking about schoolwork.
It’s fairly well agreed upon that student activism at Cornell, (political, religious, philosophical or otherwise) is not an endeavour pursued by everyone, or even the majority of people on campus. Activism is about promoting or preventing social change, achieved through advocacy and biased participation in the world around us. Simply working in business or providing services, charity or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute activism, if the point is not to advocate for or change the status quo. While many Cornellians are extremely active — in service, research, social interaction and political groups — few fit the bill as “activists” in the traditional sense.
When campus administrators and faculty encourage us towards “student activism,” it feels as if it’s a reference to the past. The 1960s brought the birth of American student activism, focused on large-scale civil rights issues that permeated society right down to the university level. In many ways, the civil rights debates of the 60s and 70s pitted progressive against traditional, and therefore young against old.
Today, our generation doesn’t have an issue that brings us together counter-culturally in the same way that youth did then. Maybe it’s because race and gender equality permeated every facet of society, forcing everyone to consider it, whereas issues like abortion, same sex marriage, fiscal policy and environmental issues can be shunted to a specific demographic and avoided. They are split between more than two large segments of society; they pit Republican against Democrat, liberal against conservative, religious against atheist. Maybe soon one of these issues will come to a head and power the same social movement and discussion among young, educated students that civil rights did in the 60s. It seems clear, however, that today there is no one issue that galvanizes this generation and forces us to act cohesively.
Faculty members who are dismayed are correct that we aren’t as active as we could be, and that our advocacy sometimes slides below the level it could stand at considering our level of educational opportunity. But the shape that their expectations for us take is predicated on the idea that there is a single galvanizing cause for our generation. Today, causes manifest themselves fundamentally differently than they did 40 or 50 years ago; a more active student body will not necessarily be a more united student body.
A major factor that contributes to the general passivity of the student body is pre-professionalism. While our pre-professional academic programs are a cornerstone of this school and an important part of making this University tick, they do promote the idea that school is preparatory. Being in a state of preparation for a future time naturally means passivity towards the present day.
The Cornell administration should take more steps to promote and foster student activism on campus. While most in this community are legal adults, we still live in a bubble where many services and resources are provided for us. We are cushioned in a way that full adults are not. As such, the University still accepts significant responsibility for the culture of our school — while students should be active participants in Cornell life and the larger community, the University itself must provide structure to encourage this to happen.
A good place to start would be an eight hour per semester “Active Credits” requirement for every student University-wide. This could be satisfied through community service, political activity, field work, environmental research or anything else that pushes a student to participate actively in the world around him or her, outside of the basic university setting. While many students would be able to satisfy this with ease, it creates a clear cultural emphasis on active behavior and changes the paradigm through which we perceive our activities.
We need to be institutionally encouraged to take the reins again. I trust that if there was an egregious change in University policy tomorrow, we’d all rise up and go wild together outside Day Hall. But if we want to consistently promote active student life in an everyday context, then the University should do what it can to institutionalize the pursuit of causes. Such a requirement, or any other initiative that the University would pursue, encourages students to lift their heads and participate in activities (that they may already participate in) with an awareness of that work’s function in the larger world.
Before Cornell has a culture in which student activism is self-sustainable and not contingent upon administration mistakes or major social movements, the University itself must institutionalize and encourage a commitment to active life. This standardizes the commitment to a cause, personal or more widespread. Today we are less a cohesive body of advocates for a single, major cause than the student body once was. But we can be a tapestry of hundreds of issues, and that would be an outcome that would open the doors for dialogue and student activists for years to come.
Maggie Henry is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.