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.

42 thoughts on “DAVE'S NOT HERE MAN!”

  • I'd agree….I teach kids a little bit younger (HS Srs) and the vast majority couldn't tell you who are the 2 US Senators from our state. (Shame on me lol)

    I think when there was actual skin in the game for them eg. possibly being drafted into the military in the late 60s/early 70s, you saw more widespread activism on college campuses.

  • I can't easily find the direct quote, but I recollect reading in J K Galbraith's biography one of his characteristically sardonic remarks that the main pursuits of college students were drinking and sex.

  • While at University of Colorado-Denver, a thriving downtown campus of (then) some 20,000 students, I once ran for Student Council Prez. I lost, by a tally of 12-9.

    Yes, that's right; a total of 21 votes were cast. Only 7 of whom were my friends.

  • One amusing wingnut idea is that college kids have that iconic image of Che everywhere — on tshirts, posters, etc. I spent a lot of time on college and university campuses from the mid-80s to the early oughts, either as a grad student or employee. I never once saw anyone wearing a Che shirt, even ironically. The only place I can remember seeing that was on a pendant Johnny Depp was wearing on an Esquire cover portrait.

    @Mo: I don't know the name of the person; I guess he must have been an ex-university president, said: "The job of a university president is to insure that there is enough sports for the alumni, parking for the faculty, and sex for the students."

  • Go ahead and write your piece and shop it around. Every newspaper in the country runs a "kids these days suck" piece every few weeks, there's no shortage of news hole to fill and you shouldn't assume Drezner's article has somehow filled all need for such things.

  • I agree. Plus, it seems to me that the right-wing fringe on campuses has gone out of their way to invite very controversial figures like Ann Coulter, Milo What-the-fucks-his-last name, and other conservative bottom feeders just to gin up "libtard" dissent. Jeezus, I wonder if they wouldn't invite Hitler were he still alive and then get upset when the majority of campus shows up to throw pies at him.

  • "They care about… sleeping, getting drunk / high, partying, socializing, sleeping, watching Netflix, sleeping, getting drunk,".

    Say what you want, it's an ethos

  • Death Panel Truck says:

    @ Redleg:

    All over people changing their votes
    Along with their overcoats
    If Adolf Hitler flew in today
    They'd send a limousine anyway

    "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais," The Clash

  • MS: Oh, the college Republicans are always trying to stir up outrage to get attention. At least as far back as I can remember. They are the child in the high chair flinging their cup on the floor over and over again. And by golly it works.

  • For a glimpse at 19-year old university students in the early 1800s, read "Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University That Changed America," by Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos. More guns actively used back then, but otherwise as you describe. Short but fun read.

  • College Level Educator Here, just popping in to say: Yep. And most of the activists that I occasionally interact with leave me with the strong desire to take them by the shoulders and gently say "This is all about how angry you are at your parents, you understand that, right?"*

    *Please note that that doesn't mean that the activists aren't very often entirely on point. Like, say, the ones who protest the inadequacies of university administrations in addressing on-campus sexual assault.

  • Thanks to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, my kids had a pretty good grasp on current events in high school. After that? Don't think there's that much time in the day, what with all the drinking and sleeping and partying.

    I think back to my own time in college–this was before the Internet was really a thing, cable tv hadn't yet reached the town my college was in, and the school was in a valley that didn't get tv reception. If it weren't for FM radio, I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on.

  • Prairie Bear –

    While an undergraduate back in the early Seventies I did have a Che Guevara poster on the wall of my dorm room — it was the National Lampoon cover showing Che getting hit in the face with a custard pie.

  • Emerson Dameron says:


    While I would never get on board with rolling back voting rights, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to keep one’s political options open until one’s brain is fully formed. That would have saved me a lot of embarrassment, along with paper used to make terrible zines.

  • Prairie Bear – Che's presence on campus is a lot like Morrison or Hendrix: it's a face that has been so popularized, any actual and substantial meaning is lost on the wearers beyond vague association. I went to college in the great unwashed liberal epicenter of California only a couple of years ago, and I guarantee that while you'd probably see a lot of Che shirts, if you asked the person sporting it who he was or why he was important, they'd tell you that they bought it at Spencer's or Hot Topic because it looked cool.

    I have to agree with J. Dryden overall on this one, in addition to the main point. Most students on campus are more actively worried about pretty much anything else except what's going on in the world. The debt load, the work load, the party load, the socialization load, and the drinking load are all substantially more important to every-day life for a college student these days than "is my life fair and just and how can I agitate change?" There were a few of my peers for whom politics and justice were the fire that fueled them, but to a person, they were utterly intolerable. Too much anger to focus on problems they could conceivably change, too much inexperience to know where to start, and too much impatience to consider that not everything they encountered was a reflection of what they believed. They were walking megaphones, and apparently didn't have the ability to not be. For the rest of us, all we wanted was to get to the weekend and kick back with a beer, a bong, or a book (preference varies accordingly.)

  • old white person says:

    I was a semi- activist on a relatively activist campus late 60's early 70's. The vast majority of this very large student body didn't give 2 shits about Vietnam, civil rights, women's issues, anything political.

  • When I teach medieval history, I have the students read descriptions of student life in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The age of the students was often lower (as young as 11), but the behavior still hasn't changed much.

  • The other issue with these stories about College Kids Today is that they're always focused on the doings of a tiny number of elite institutions. So you end with with NYT articles about "Princeton's Eating Clubs Struggle To Adapt To Changing Campus" and "Bryn Mawr To Offer Major In Heterosexual Studies This Fall" despite the fact that 98% of students attending college are not attending Brown or Emory or Caltech – they're going to big state schools and campuses with compass directions in their names and small local colleges and community colleges, and all these "college issues" that our elite media obsesses over seem to them like they're being beamed in from an alien planet.

  • My time on campus as student, grad student, employee and instructor from the late eighties to late oughts the closest I ever say was a (I think) parody of Reagan made up as Che.

    Else, eyup. Happily retired thank you.

  • Sometimes college student activists can be a bit silly and over-earnest and not very good at presenting their not-fully-formed beliefs. SO WHAT? They're growing up and figuring out who they are and what they believe and culture scolds moaning about how horrible they all are can go fuck themselves.

  • "the main pursuits of college students were drinking and sex."

    Many of them are interested in Occupational Neuropharmacology. It's not just "X" or oxy it's "X" and oxy with some "roofies" and fifty cent Rolling Rock drafts on mug night.

    I take both Lyrica and Adderall and I have had a number of people ask me to sell them some of the latter for "studying" and some of the former for, um, "research", yeah that's it, "research"! I'm very squeamish but I think it's safe to say that I'd be selling my blood before I'd sell my meds.

    I play trivia on Tuesday nights and the local college kids, when they bother to play are uniformly shitty.

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  • I suspect that was as true about 19 year old Americans in 1800 as it is in 2017.
    That's a suspect statement despite what MrGizmo says.

  • I had a poster of Lenin (not the Beetle the other one) on my wall in college but it was more of an ironic thing since I was an ROTC cadet at the time.

    Plus I was a lot more conservative in college than I am today.

  • @ Major Kong:

    I remember going up to the Boulder Campus when I was in Tech School @ Lowry AFB back in 1969. I was in uniform as I had NO civilian clothes that were suitable for cold weather (it was January). Exceedingly bad idea. If history is a guide most of the young anti-wars that were there are in Trumpligulamygdala's cohort. An awful lot of "anti-establishment" folks I knew back in the late 60's and early 70's are scared shitless of anarchy these days. When I was at my class reunion back in June (50 fucking years from HS–YIKES!) there were also about 5 or 6 former GS classmates who had gone to Creighton Prep instead of Cathedral for HS. To a man (and they were all men) they are, as they self-report, "hippie republicans". I assiduously avoided talking to any of them about politics as I didn't want to ruin the evening for other people present by losing my shit and telling them what a bunch of hypocrites they are.

  • I have long thought that a great prompt for an essay questions would be simply a cartoon panel (political, New Yorker, Mad, whatever) and ask, "Why is this funny"?

  • I wore my Che t-shirt quite ironically though no one ever asked if it was serious. This was Brown in the 90s, though, so it was possible to plan social justice activist theater with a Rockefeller and go to frat parties in a dress and beard. Good times.

  • Not a Real Tory says:

    Actually, I prefer the (paraphrasing) comments made by one of Robertson Davies' characters:

    History rings with the phrase, And the students rioted in the streets.

    As a medievalist, I can tell you that students acting out politically is cyclical generally.

  • I was much more self-centered in my college years – you know, turn in those assignments, pass those tests, get something for the time and money I was investing – that sort of thing. Political awareness came much later in life for me.

  • Nearly 40 years ago I was starting my first semester, a young veteran with an excellent grasp of civics and history. Truthfully, all I gave a f*ck about was getting drunk, getting laid, and getting my degree so that I could re-enter service as an officer.

    I guess I was not unlike today's kids, except that I had done something before univeristy and could pass a trivia exam on politics. Yes, we were all probably better educated on the mechanics of governance than your current students but, please, let's not short sell the value of getting drunk and getting laid.

  • In my experience more college activists were the kids of activists than angry at their parents. Lots of story about stuffing Amnesty International envelopes as kids to help out their parents and the like.

  • @ Gregory:

    The getting laid and getting drunk thing (Pro-tip: do the first one first–it's way more fun for both parties): I got out of the AF in late 1972 and spent most of 1973–1976 getting drunk and chasing the elusive thing called love, with a lot of missteps and heartbreak but I did fine without investing a couple of years pay into a degree that would never have really helped somebody as pissed off as I tend to get with dickmanagement land a job that would have an upslope.

    I recommend bartending/waiting or bandguy.

  • You're telling me media types cherry-pick cases around which they can build attention-grabbing narratives? Pull the other one.

  • As a college student in the eighties, I briefly dated a girl, who upon seeing a Time Magizine in the bookstore with a cover featuring a victim of Chernobyl remarked "aww, that's sooo sad! What happened?" This was about three weeks after the meltdown.

  • The media types you're writing about were activists in college. They actually believe that they MADE A DIFFERENCE.

    I had a recent Twitter exchange with someone who (indirectly) claimed that student demonstrations in the '60s-'70s made a difference. No they did not. Kent State made a (small) difference but 58% of the public said the kids deserved to be shot.

    Students are a minority, students don't vote, nobody cares what students have to say.

    Freedom riders made a difference because they actually went to where there was a problem and put their bodies into the battle AND there was TV coverage. Without TV, they were a bunch of nobodies wasting people's time.

  • Sorry I missed the reply.
    Illustrates my point: activists want to believe and will *modify* history to make it easier.
    Bull Connor, water cannons and clan murders were SOP at the time. The thing that changed the conversation was TV.

  • Yeah, I was at Columbia for 9/11 and the Iraq invasion. It's (probably correctly) seen as one of the most political and lefty campuses in the country, and an overwhelming majority of students did not give a shit about anything beyond landing internships and trying to see The Strokes.

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