Ahh, the Swinging Sixties. An age of change. Music preached individual freedom, and a potent utopia, mingled with even more potent narcotics, fuelled the nation’s youth. The cocktail was compelling. The decade of equality, world peace and civil rights saw the empowerment of the young in the political arena. But who exactly took up this position at the forefront of a social revolution that broke the conservative shackles? The students of course. The young had arrived, without their chaperones, and they would not come quietly. Sit-in protests, staged across universities in opposition to the Vietnam war, and frenzied street protests in Paris, which almost culminated in the collapse of the De Gaulle government, were all driven by an outraged student population. 1968 saw the period reach its climax in a hot bed of student activism. Having emerged from the oppressive climate of the 1950s, donning a red beret and waving posters, we truly believed we could change the world. But has this flame of optimism flickered out?Lord Triesman was recently quoted in the Guardian, bemoaning the inactivity of today’s youth. The modern student, unlike his parents, apparently no longer deems it ‘cool’ to protest, apparently preferring a night at Filth instead. ‘Students are spending more time socially than before,’ he says. ‘In 1968, being involved was seen as absolutely right and there was a lot of mutual support. But now the alternative might be to do almost anything else.’Even the OUSU elections last term, with an uninspiring turn-out rate of around 40%, was a relative success compared to the voter turnout of just 2.6% at the NUS representative elections at Plymouth University. If it is simply that students no longer want to exercise the hard-won democratic rights of their revolutionary parents, where does this mass of apathy come from?Perhaps students aren’t as eager as their predecessors to leap from their lectures and take to the streets, but is this to be regretted? Was the volatility of past generations an indication of true political engagement or merely an expression of rebellious culture; merely a universal ‘fingers up’ at the establishment? Many of today’s students are simply disillusioned with politics, even at university level. The recent scandal at the Oxford Union elections has tainted an institution of integrity and forward-thinking with the bitter taste of sleaze and corruption. To label today’s student population as an unthinking mass, indifferent to everything aside from their immediate entertainment, is surely a grossly unjust generalisation. Many students are opinionated, aware and ready to let the establishment know about it. HSBC was recently forced to drop its plans to charge graduates 9.9% APR on overdrafts after a mass student protest via Facebook. Broader issues too are not met with disinterest, but fiercely debated. The Manchester University Student Union general meeting saw the venue overwhelmed as hundreds wished to register their vote on the institution’s recent twinning with a Palestinian university. The media’s addiction to controversy has driven many protests to attention-grabbing extremes. The anti-fascist protest outside the free speech forum at the Oxford Union last term could be seen as an example of this. A number of protesters charged the gate and forced their way into the debating chamber. Whilst these antics provided perfect journalistic fodder, they seemed to distract from the essence of the protesters’ purpose. This makes it far easier for the opposition to dismiss their point of view. In The Independent, the day after the forum, Nick Griffin was quoted as saying, “we in the BNP are certainly not in the fascist tradition. Free speech and democracy are our absolute core values”. The fact that the leader of a group of extremists could fashion himself as a beacon of democracy, in comparison to the group of anti-fascist protesters, in my view shows just how confusing the message sent out by the protesters was. Perhaps we no longer feel our voices will be heard amidst the screaming headlines of celebrity scandal. The 2003 protests against the war in Iraq, which featured around 36 million people in almost 3000 protests, clearly fell on deaf ears. On 19 March approximately 1,000 students from secondary schools to universities sat down outside the BBC studios, blocking traffic. The BBC, however, neglected to film this demonstration. Yet, looking at our position in the wider world, we should feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. In Iran, University authorities have adopted a ‘star rating’ system, which hinders political dissenters from progressing with higher education. Yet we are beleaguered for our lack of political activism. The wild protests of the past represent an age with a distinctly different flavour. Today’s political menu is rather more bland than the clash of extremes savoured in the 60s. Popular politics have moved to a comfortable and inoffensive centre, where ideals are diluted to create a dish more palatable to the majority. Are we now satisfied and well-fed? The restless students of yesterday have fought our battles, and the liberal democracy of today is our inheritance. Surely we have more to achieve?Maybe criticism levelled at the students is a call for us to take a position currently vacant in today’s society. We rely on the youth to ignite political engagement and provide a counter-voice to the government. This role is not just for aging commies, and unemployed hippies – it belongs to you. Students, your country needs you.by Sophia Coles and Zoe Savory.
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