Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Canadian Student Activism Isn’t Dead. It’s Just Evolving

Canadian Student Activism

Apathy might not be to blame for quiet campuses and un-political students.

Apathy is killing student activism. At least that is what so many professors, broadcasters, and bloggers would have us believe. Countless initiatives aim to re-inspire generation Y. But what if apathy is not to blame for quiet campuses and un-political students. What if we stop criticizing apathetic students, and consider the impact of the context they are operating in. A careful look into the lives of today’s students reveals a number of factors, many of them financial, which make contemporary student activism less and less likely.

In the 1960s (the highpoint of campus activism) students could afford the cost of schooling, and could count on good jobs upon the completion of their degrees. Today’s students don’t have the same financial security, and it may be affecting their participation in political activities.

Today, students often struggle to make ends meet. This is, in part, because student bodies have become more diverse; postsecondary institutions are no longer the domain of wealthy students alone. But in recent years, rising tuition and student fees have put a significant strain on student finances. These Increased costs push many students to enter into paid employment during the school year. In fact, almost half of all Canadian students (an unprecedented percentage) are now working while studying.

The time crunch brought on by balancing paid work, school work, and a healthy social life, leaves students with little time or energy for political activities. This should come as no surprise. Research has long confirmed that time and energy, and the financial security that buys them, play pivotal roles in politics. More resources at an individual’s disposal increase the odds of their political participation, while less resources decrease those odds.

Even the prospect of future financial insecurity can affect political behaviour. Today’s students know that when they leave the confines of their campus they will be entering into competitive and precarious job markets. This contributes to a vocational focus for many students, their parents, their school administrators, and their politicians. More than ever, colleges and universities are seen as training grounds for employment. This type of outlook turns the postsecondary experience into a means to an end. It takes away from what schooling has traditionally been about: encouraging young minds to think passionately and critically about the world in which they live. It is this traditional objective of academic institutions that sows seeds for political engagement. But thanks again to the financial pressures and insecurities of the day, students are too preoccupied with their personal financial concerns to get involved in campus politics.

Of course anyone who has spent time on Canadian campuses knows that student activism is not dead, and students are not wholly apathetic. Many students still find the time, energy, and will to be involved in politics in traditional ways: joining political parties, leafleting, or protesting in activist groups. Many more of us are political in ways that critics rarely recognize. We are vegetarian or vegan, we buy fair trade coffee, ‘no-sweat’ clothes, and use our Facebook walls as political forums.

That said there is still room to inspire more political campuses. But if we want to do so, let’s not start with the simplistic and insulting assumption that students are apathetic. Let’s look at the context students exist within, and consider how that environment might be setting limits on students’ political engagement. In addition to finances, student activism is affected by a number of factors including our society’s increasing distaste for politics, and the post 9/11 management of dissent, to name a few.

If we are truly concerned about decreased student activism, these types of contextual influences must be addressed.

Malaika Baxter
Author: Malaika Baxter
Malaika Baxter is a recent graduate of Brock University's MA program in Social Justice and Equity Studies. Her Masters research project considered student activism in the neoliberal context.
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