The following post on the myth of student apathy comes from Angus Johnston, from the Student Activism blog. In his post, he talks about political and social apathy, or why students seem like they just don’t care and are so unwilling to get involved in social change. His take on it is that it’s not really apathy at all, but despair or hopelessness, and feeling disempowered to do anything about it. He argues that simply by doing something, getting involved in a protest or organizing effort, people start to feel empowered.
I agree with most of this analysis. It isn’t really that students don’t care. I find a similar dynamic at play in terms of learning and class participation, especially with lower income students who may have many years of school failure. They feel disempowered and often hopeless about being academically successful. Many of my students strive for Ds and consider this successful. When I find ways to help low-achieving students succeed in front of their peers, they often start to participate more often and with greater confidence. They also start to complete more assignments and their grades improve. This could be seen as academic empowerment.
One part of his analysis that is problematic is the assumption that participation necessarily leads to empowerment. While I have seen this happen repeatedly as an activist, disempowered people do not necessarily get involved, especially on their own. This is true in activism as well as in the classroom. As teachers, we need to create opportunities to empower students. As activists, we sometimes need to meet with people face to face, listen to the concerns and needs, convince them that we have their backs and then maybe they will get involved.
It is also important to consider how the nature of one’s involvement affects their sense of empowerment. Activists often get seriously invested in (or addicted to) their work, committing long hours and personal sacrifice to their cause(s). This often leads to burn-out, especially when objectives (like getting the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan) aren’t met. When this happens, empowerment can turn back into disempowerment, despair and hopelessness.
February 8, 2011 in Students
I’ve been thinking about the idea of “apathy” a lot recently, and the more I do the more I doubt its usefulness.
A lot of what’s taken for apathy is actually, I think, despair. It’s a nagging, grinding, chronic despair that leads a person to think that what’s wrong will always be wrong and that they can’t play any part in changing it. It’s not apathy, because apathy would mean that they didn’t care. They do care, often, but they’re resigned to things the way they are because they think they’re powerless.
This is something I talk a lot about with students when they bring up the question of campus apathy. I ask them whether the problem is that other students don’t give a damn about the barriers they’re facing, or whether they just assume those barriers are insurmountable. My hunch is that it’s usually mostly the second, even when it looks and sounds like the first.
And it turns out that this is good news. Because if the problem in your community is apathy, you have to convince the people you’re working with to care. If the problem is perceived powerlessness, then your task is very different.
Convincing people that they have power is hard, of course, but it’s easier than browbeating them into giving a damn. And it turns out that the best way to do it is to go out and start making change — which means that the work of activism and the work of movement-building wind up being the same work.