Apathy is a scary thing. Apathy in the young is a major disaster waiting to happen.
I was a college student in the late '60s. Apathy was not one of our problems, even here in the quiet relative isolation of Utah. We knew what was going on in the world and we worried about it. We had opinions about how things were being run, and sometimes we even tried to change things - mostly on a small, local scale.But, above all, we cared.
As editor of the student newspaper at Weber State College (I'm still proud to be a WSC graduate, NOT a Weber State University graduate), I was in hot water most of the time because my staff and I believed in things like equal treatment for white and black athletes and the right to criticize the administration.
I fought through an unhealthy number of confrontations with faculty, administrators and other students, who also had strong opinions. And I was aware that student-newspaper editors on other campuses were doing the same thing - often to a much greater degree of intensity.
Now I teach college classes as a part-time instructor. Many of my students are communication majors - people who should be aware of and interested in what's happening around them and who should have strong opinions.
Most do very little reading. If they look at a newspaper at all, it's usually the alternative weeklies that focus on entertainment. They don't know what an editorial page is and they certainly don't understand its importance.
I have one student who delights in answering "I really don't care" to any question I ask about current events. The others aren't so blatantly or proudly unaware, but nonetheless they are about as involved in national and local events as a starfish stuck on a rock is aware of the vast sea that sustains it.
The textbook I'm using this semester confirms my fears. It states that a 1990 Los Angeles Times study found that only 30 percent of people under 35 read any part of a newspaper of any kind the day before. Twenty-five years earlier, the Gallup polling people found the rate was 67 percent.
And it gets worse. The Times study also found it isn't just newspapers that young people are avoiding but news itself. Of respondents between ages 18 and 29, 40 percent are less likely than their elders to be able to identify significant figures in the news, and 20 percent said they were less likely to follow even major events.
Even television news isn't catching their interest. Only four of every 10 respondents under age 35 had watched television news the day before. Twenty-five years earlier it was half.
And, as a result of this lack of interest, they don't have opinions about anything. When I asked what they thought about the Clinton sex scandal, they all knew something about it and some had an opinion (the flotsam from a major shipwreck reaches even the clueless sea star). But when I asked how they had formed that opinion, most said they'd listened to their parents and adopted what they thought.
I am sure these are good kids. They are working to get an education so they can earn a living and be independent and productive citizens. But, whether or not they understand it, being a citizen of this country involves more than earning a paycheck and paying taxes. Being an American is all about being aware, because, for better or worse, individual citizens still run the country, though it may take time for us to bring about change.
We children of the '60s are getting on in years. The burden and opportunity of keeping democracy up and running will soon pass to the very college students who sit in my classes, professing not to give a hang.
I think we should be afraid.