At first, it seemed like old times at Sproul Plaza. It was at this storm center on the University of California campus where student radicalism peaked in the free-speech movement of the mid-1960s and the antiwar protests shortly after. On the announcement board at Sproul Plaza was a poster that looked to be a definite call to action.
"In Defense of Marxism," read the top line in bold letters. Underneath was a quote from the master himself, "Marx on the party." "A party? You call this a party? The beer is warm, the women are cold and I'm hot under the collar."
The Marx being quoted at Sproul 1982 was Groucho, not Karl. The last line, also in bold letters, called out: "Smirkers of the World Unite."
One goof-off poster hardly represents a Sociological Shift of Large Import. Nor are my eyes much given to student watching. But in the 15 years since my last visit to Berkeley, the difference between students then and now is like the night and day between the Marxes, Groucho and Karl.
In 1967, the tumult on the Berkeley campus was against the government's war policies in Vietnam. Now the anti- government protest is against the Berkeley town council for passing a municipal noise ordinance. The campus Interfraternity Council, it seems, believes that the new anti-noise policy means the end of frat house parties on Friday and Saturday nights.
Elsewhere on this campus that generated so much of the nation's anti-war feelings just when that was needed, the military's ROTC program is flourishing. Business courses are popular, and a professor in the journalism department says he is regularly challenged by students who see nothing disturbing -- as does the professor -- in the increasing control of the daily press by newspaper chains. Reading The Wall Street Journal has replaced reading the Berkeley Barb, now defunct.
The sharp contrasts here help focus what I've seen in more muted regressions on the dozen or so other campuses I've visited in the past two years: the phasing out of idealism. It is still present in many students, but they keep it inside. Nursing students, for example, don't dare say that they are studying medicine to help people by easing their suffering. Instead, they express individual career hopes of being supervisors by the time they are 35. Why can't they say they want to nurse because they love people?
Students don't talk about service to others, but of benefits to themselves. Personal growth is out, intellectual self-grooming for corporate recruiters is in. Courses are taken to get a marketable skill, not to acquire skills for reasoning or for human understanding.
The tension between idealism and careerism isn't new, or unnecessary. But seldom has it seemed this one-sided. The students aren't to blame. They are trapped. As the colleges and universities have less and less resources to devote to the humanities and liberal arts, where a sensitivity toward social advancement has traditionally been nurtured, they are forced to look to private industry for money. Edward E. David Jr., president of Exxon Research and Engineering Company, reports in Change magazine that corporations are becoming the big men on campus. In the 1980s, he projects a tripling of industry support for academic research, from $200 million a year to about $600 million a year. He emphasizes that this is not mere industrial philanthropy; the money goes to research "consistent with a commercial 'mission.'"
The main industry objective is to ensure a supply of "excellent people" among the graduates. David cited a study that "showed that the disciplines most aligned with conservative political ideas and favorable to the private sector are engineering, medicine, physics and mathematics."
Among the most horrified at how students have fewer alternatives as the campuses become corporate annexes are the faculty members in their 40s who themselves were idealists in the 1960s. At every college I've visited, I've met professors who speak of their frustration. They want to pass on their ideals about public service to their students. But they can't. The imbalance now favors private industries that have the economic might to tell the students, "Serve us."