Fellow political scientist and not-fellow regular Washington Post contribution Daniel Drezner has a great column up this morning encouraging Americans (ok, basically the media) to stop getting our collective panties in a bunch about college students' attitudes toward free speech. I was working on a similar piece, which I have just deleted in anger and cursed Prof. Drezner's ancestors.
Articles about college students by people who do not spend their working lives on a college campus are inevitably bad. Hilariously bad. Bad like that right-wing Christian fantasy film God's Not Dead, which represents a fever dream of what a college campus is like by a bunch of people who have never been on one.
Since this isn't the Washington Post and I don't have an editor here I'm going to cut to the chase: 99.99% of college students don't care. About anything. Half of them consume so little news that even asking them about the major headline stories of a given time period draws blank stares more often than not. If they have opinions about political or social issues, more often than not it amounts to parroting the reactionary views of their parents and all the Fox News their parents exposed them to. The idea of college undergraduates as a gaggle of barbarians mobbing the proverbial gate is endlessly amusing to any college faculty. If you can get these kids to show up to class and hand in their assignments it's a goddamn miracle.
The media inevitably gravitates toward the outliers – Evergreen State, Oberlin, Reed, Wisconsin-Madison, and the small number of campuses where student activism seems to be the predominant recreational activity on campus (and often takes its most extreme and mock-able form). I went to UW-Madison. There was lots of activism. But even there, the overwhelming majority – probably 4/5 – of the student body gave exactly zero shits.
I've written about this before and want to again reiterate that it's not intended as criticism, but to all intents and purposes most of today's college undergraduates are basically kids despite being adults on paper. They care about texting their friends, sleeping, getting drunk / high, partying, socializing, sleeping, watching Netflix, sleeping, getting drunk, and staring at social media. They are more mature than a high schooler, but their preferences are much the same. Does your high school-aged kid seem like a raging activist? Yeah, I didn't think so.
Same thing, but older. That's a college student.
On every campus and among College Students writ large there is a core of students deeply involved in social and political issues. But that has always been the case. Nothing is new here. The idea that the entire demographic is being mobilized as some sort of Red Brigade is beyond silly. You couldn't mobilize the average undergraduate to dunk his ass in water if you set it on fire. And I say that with love. They're not bad people, the occasional real bastard aside. They just have a very small bubble in which they live and there's not much room in their cognitive world for anything but their own immediate wants and needs. I suspect that was as true about 19 year old Americans in 1800 as it is in 2017.