Takin’ It to the Web

The surveys make it official: Today's collegians may not protest in the streets, but the networked generation is as anti-war and political as students in the '60s.
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It's six o'clock one Thursday evening in August, and at the sleek new Cota Street Gallery in downtown Santa Barbara, Calif., visitors are finding themselves in the photographs.

"I was there — this is all bringing it back really clearly," a man in his late 50s says, leaning close to a photo, scrutinizing the black-and-white image of students crowded together, fists raised, in a wide university quad. Across the room, a small group of gray-haired men in sandals and loose, printed shirts is laughing next to images of masked policemen and a car in flames. "It's not too late to turn yourself in," one of them jokes.

It's the opening night of photographer Joe Melchione's long-awaited exhibit, Year of Rebellion, featuring more than 50 photographs that chronicle the 1970 student riots at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The riots, which took place between February and June that year, resulted in the death of one student and the arrest of several hundred others; eventually, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in the National Guard, closing all UC campuses. Melchione has had the negatives since his student days, when he shot the images as photo editor of the school newspaper. Now, almost 40 years later, they're making their debut in front of an appreciative crowd.

Sipping champagne in clear, plastic cups and nibbling miniature, pink-frosted cupcakes from a fancy bakery up the street, the former rioters — most in faded jeans and several sporting long, graying ponytails — look slightly out of place. Nostalgia is palpable.

"This is what we used to do," a woman tells her teenage daughter, pointing at one of the pictures. Hundreds of students sprawl on a grassy hill overlooking a wooden platform with a microphone, most of them barefoot or shirtless in the California sun. A white Volkswagen van idles behind the makeshift stage.

The daughter peers at the photo curiously. "Were you there?" she asks.

"I'm in there somewhere," her mother replies nonchalantly, wafting cigarette smoke as she turns to drift down the hall.

On the surface, today's college generation seems to share little with the student protesters of the Vietnam era other than an unpopular war and a penchant for artfully ripped jeans. And the dramatic campus protests of the '60s and '70s may always be seen as a golden age of student interest and involvement in politics. Just the same, a recent University of California survey shows that 85 percent of students agree that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake — a statistic that suggests a higher percentage of students hold anti-war sentiments today than at the height of the Vietnam years. Then, anti-war opinion rarely polled at higher than 60 percent of college students.

Survey data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, show that today's college generation is in fact fast approaching overall levels of political interest characteristic of the students of the Vietnam era. The percentage of students who call themselves "liberal" is the highest it's been since 1976, while the number who identify as "middle of the road" has dropped to lows not seen since 1970. This time around, the trend toward taking a political stance isn't just limited to the left — the percentage of students who call themselves "conservative" is at an all-time high. But the institute's freshman surveys suggest that student political apathy is a thing of the past.

As history has repeatedly shown, renewed interest in politics doesn't always transfer into significant votes come election time. But with a primary season that saw college-age voter turnout doubling and even tripling in Missouri, Tennessee, Florida and other states, this November young people could play a bigger role than ever in deciding who enters the Oval Office in January. The 14th Biannual Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service by the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, conducted this spring, reports that 72 percent of college students say they will definitely vote in the presidential election, a stat that's up 22 percentage points from 2000.

So if today's youth are as politically concerned as the Vietnam-era student generation, where is all the campus-based political activism? It's in the network.

Looking at the long, open walkways of UCSB's campus today, it's hard to believe it was once a key center of civil unrest. Students on beach cruisers pedal lazily to class, while others, eyes glued to cell phone screens, somehow manage to navigate collision-free across wide walkways and open, green lawns.

Dick Flacks is a sociology professor who has taught at UCSB for almost four decades; his face is still recognizable from one of Melchione's close-up portraits, taken the day in 1970 when he addressed some 3,000 student protesters. Sitting in his small, slightly cramped office, he mulls a contradiction: the apathy some claim to see in today's college kids against the fact that, as a whole, they just might be more politicized than the students he taught 40 years ago.

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"The '60s was about the protest of the privileged against their privilege," Flacks says. "The white, upper-middle-class rebel was a type."

He pauses thoughtfully for a moment. "We don't see that kind of subculture today," he adds.

Melchione's photographs capture the '60s subculture — with its sweeping ideals, brazen self-expression and aesthetic appeal —far better than words. But they also reflect the contradictory moods of anti-war culture: In some images, large groups of students sit cross-legged and smiling on grassy quads; in others — such as those taken shortly before the infamous February night the campus Bank of America was set aflame — the "peace and love" atmosphere has evaporated, and small bands of students stand, restless and nervous, under the eerie glow of streetlights that illuminate smoke from a burning police car. Some 85 percent of students of the '60s and early-'70s youth culture cited "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" as the essential objective of their college years. They took to the streets to oppose war and support Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern for president.

Today, "being very well off financially" tops the college objectives charts, surveys show, and though they are often more politicized than their forbears, current students tend to forgo public protest, opting instead to join political Facebook groups or shop online for T-shirts with slogans like "Barack 'n' Roll." With a widespread drive to achieve and a fundamentally different outlook on life, they lend new energy to the fusion of pop culture and politics.

In the 2006 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey, 72 percent of students said they've never attended any form of public demonstration. But Flacks, a principal researcher for the survey, which has provided comprehensive information on UC student attitudes since 2002, says the lack of radical activism masks an increasingly liberal-minded generation.

"The consensus of students now is more liberal, more anti-war, than at the height of the Vietnam War," Flacks says. And according to data from both the UC survey and the Higher Education Research Institute survey — the latter of which has studied student attitudes since 1965 — that statement may not be as radical as it sounds. John Pryor, managing director of the research institute, has seen similar trends toward liberalization among students when it comes to other key political issues, including gay rights: In 1977, 46.6 percent of college freshmen thought it was "important to have laws prohibiting homosexual relationships"; by 2006, that percentage was just 25.6.

And counterintuitive as it may sound, Flacks suggests that the reason students today aren't protesting may in fact be because of the liberal trend. In the late '60s and early '70s, small groups of radical student activists at campuses like UCSB used protests to move the attention of the general populace — and their fellow students — to the futility of the war. Today, with the general consensus on the war openly negative across the country (and overwhelmingly negative on college campuses), the need for radical, attention-grabbing activity has vanished.

And though there are a vast number of political issues making waves on campuses — immigration, gay marriage and the environment among them — young people today have abandoned protest in favor of more convenient means of spreading their views. Born in the Computer Age and attending college in record numbers, today's students are wired for success: In the research institute's 2006 survey, 72.6 percent rated themselves "above average or highest 10 percent" in their "drive to achieve" (compared with only 57.8 percent in 1971), and 73.4 percent cited "being very well off financially" as "very important." (Only 36.2 percent said the same in 1970.) With the myriad of potential "student" issues on the table, small, student-led groups and online networking not only fit with what students today are used to but also reflect the new, practical attitude toward politics and getting ahead that has replaced the bohemian, "turn on, tune in, drop out" ethic of 40 years ago.

There's no denying that defining oneself politically is once again hot on campus. The Higher Education Research Institute's most-recent freshman surveys show that 31.2 percent of current students identify as liberal or far left, and 23.9 percent identify as conservative, compared with 38.6 percent identifying as liberal or far left in 1972 and only 22.7 percent doing so in 1980. With a weak U.S. economy and dwindling guarantees of jobs out of school, students have all the incentive to be politically active - and none of the time to make that political action physical.

"T-shirts, bracelets, Facebook profiles ... these are all ways for students to have a voice," says John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard's Institute of Politics. "There are more ways for students to communicate today than ever before."

This means there are also more ways to get out the vote, as this primary season showed. Most states saw their youth vote double or triple earlier this year. And with the Institute of Politics survey showing 10 percent more college students are registered to vote this spring than were eight years ago — and 22 percent more planning on making it to the polls in the fall —Della Volpe sees the impact of youth interest in politics as "absolutely dramatic" in the presidential election.

Both presidential candidates have picked up on the potential of young voters and their relationship to the Internet. According to the IOP, 86 percent of college students have Facebook accounts, and 37 percent have used the networking site to promote a political candidate, event or idea. Indeed, the Facebook event "Presidential Election 2008" has almost 700,000 confirmed guests — and counting.

Seventeen-year-old Dan Solis is the creator and founder of Think Youth, a Web site that provides an open forum for progressive teens across the nation. In 2006, he started his own political blog, but after finding he'd "hit a ceiling" with viewer traffic, he decided to put together a Web site with an expanded set of contributors, catering to a particular interest.

"I noticed that blogs with large groups of contributors are more widely read," Solis recalls. "I also noted that each of these blogs contained a niche. ... Think Youth's niche would be young people discussing politics. I searched the Web looking for young politicos with personal blogs or on YouTube, and I asked some friends to join as well."

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Today, with a five-member editorial board and 12 regular bloggers whose political interests cover a host of issues, Think Youth was invited to "The Big Tent," the center for journalists at the Democratic National Convention, sponsored by Google and others.

Solis defines a progressive as "someone who is open to new ideas" and is "willing to speak out without fear of what others think." But he says today's youth aren't looking to change politics through protesting but by supporting politicians they believe in. "When we sit in our classrooms and learn of the events that occurred throughout the time of the Vietnam era, we see it as a time of instability in American history," he says. "I don't think young people today are comfortable with an unstable society and a government that just doesn't listen. We are looking for leaders who will strike a balance of idealism and the will to get things done for the good of the country in a respectful manner."

Walking down the corridor of photos toward the end of the exhibit, I spot Joe Melchione and head over to thank him before I leave. He manages to ask me where I go to college but doesn't get to hear the answer; another ex-rioter from the "year of rebellion" has burst from the crowd to congratulate the photographer and reminisce. Watching their enthusiastic conversation, I have an epiphany: I may have signed online political petitions, voted in an election and donated $20 via a candidate's Web site — but I won't have any photographs like these to look at.

Forty years from now, what will I have to remember of politics, circa 2008? I didn't have the answer to that question as I left the Cota Street Gallery, and I don't have it now, but I'll be working on one, from now until November, at least.

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