Don't look now, but idealism may be the Next Big Thing. Lost in the backwash of the 1960s, America may be rediscovering what F. Scott Fitzgerald once called the "willingness of the heart" that is popularly believed to have characterized the 1960s and early '70s.
Leading the way again are the young, who formed the flying wedge of the mindful, sometimes mindless, idealism of the '60s.Every year since 1966, sociologists at UCLA have surveyed incoming freshmen in colleges throughout the country. For more than a decade, those surveys have contained a less than idealistic message. These students have been asked whether they considered each of several dozen life goals to be essential or very important to them personally.
In the 1966 poll, the most frequently mentioned top goal was "developing a meaningful philosophy of life," mentioned by 83 percent of those questioned. Last year, just 40 percent of the freshmen mentioned it as an important goal for them.
Conversely, just 44 percent of those interviewed in the first survey said a major life goal for them was to be "very well off financially." Last year, 75 percent said becoming rich was one of their important goals, the single most frequently mentioned goal in the 1989 survey.
Still, 59 percent of those surveyed said it was a goal in their life to "help others who are in difficulty," and that was the second most frequent response last year. That's about as high as it was in both 1967 and 1968.
In recent years the downward trend on many of these measures of idealism has been reversed. Recent surveys have shown that the percentage who said one of their goals was to "help to promote racial understanding" has increased from 27 percent in 1985 to 35 percent in 1989. And the percentage who said they wanted to work to "influence social values" has increased from 31 percent in 1982 to 41 percent last year.
Part of this change can be attributed to the end of the Cold War, which clearly demonstrated that ideals do matter. In the Soviet Union, we see an entire nation coming to grips with the idealism of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Recent surveys by Moscow's Center for Opinion Studies offer a mixed message. The nation's desire for change remains at the same time the people realize that freedom isn't free.
One example: in a survey conducted in 1989 more than half of those questioned said unemployment was impossible in the Soviet Union. But in just a few months, those views shifted dramatically as many Russians face the reality of unemployment for the first time. A big majority interviewed last spring by the center said high unemployment was possible in the Soviet Union and they found that criticism of perestroika had increased.
While idealism is being tested abroad, there are clear signs that Americans are rediscovering their ideals. "Almost wistfully, a lot of Americans, particularly young people, do want to have some greater purpose and meaning in their lives," says Paul Maslin, a political consultant.
Republicans see the same trend developing. At a June meeting of the Republican National Committee, Robert Teeter, pollster and a principal adviser to President Bush said the nation is on the verge of a revival of social activism paralleling that of the 1930s and 1960s.
The recently passed budget package reflects movement toward a truly kinder, gentler America. The budget included $22 billion in new spending for social service programs over the next five years that will touch tens of millions of Americans.
Other signs suggest movement toward a new idealism. Voluntarism and charitable giving have increased dramatically in recent years. Students at 100 of the nation's 174 law schools are pressing for a requirement that all students contribute 50 hours a year of legal service in order to graduate.
Government service is becoming more attractive. College enrollments in public affairs courses are on the rise after years of steep decline. Enrollment is up an estimated 10 percent this year and applications up 24 percent in nationwide graduate programs of public affairs, according to Alfred Zuck, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs.
Yet there is evidence to suggest that the members of the '60s generation weren't quite as idealistic then as they now believe they were.
A survey of 30- to 49-year-olds conducted last year by Gallup asked these baby boomers whether they had done things often associated with the 1960s and early '70s.
Only 16 percent said they had been involved in organized protests as part of the civil rights or anti-war movements, or other social causes. Well over twice as many - 42 percent - acknowledged, however, that they had smoked marijuana during that period. And 27 percent said they had "dressed like a hippie" during those years.
(Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post.)