It is like this at every campus along his way. Students sitting. Students standing. Students sprawled on the floor of some auditorium to hear the small gray-haired man in a crimson clerical shirt talk in his lilting accent about "that vicious, ee-vill, immoral system," apartheid.
On a recent night at Harvard, these students overfilled the forum of the Kennedy School of Government. They were crammed in and around the VIPs and the press, legs dangling from the ledge of the balconies that step-stoned around the platform, listening to Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Students who have been labeled "apathetic" had come to witness a 54-year- old Nobel Prize winner who cannot vote in his own country. Young people wear- dated as "the uninvolved generation" had come to listen to stories told by an Anglican bishop who must go home every night to black Soweto.
When he spoke, the bishop saw something distinctive in his campus supporters. An earlier generation, organized against the Vietnam War, had self-interest among their motives, he noted. Many students were draft age. "The extraordinary phenomenon of anti-apartheid movement on campuses," he said, "is that in many ways you needn't be involved. But you are."
Tutu didn't ask why, but it is a fair question. Why, in a desert of college political activism, is there this South African foliage? Why, during commencements, when another class marches straight ahead into the work force, are there mortarboard protests over apartheid?
There are some who believe that apartheid has become a campus target largely because it's a hemisphere away. It's easier to be engaged at arm's length, easier to judge another government's misdeeds. You can hang up on a long-distance cause if it gets too expensive.
But the young I know are less concerned with distance than with certainty. Apartheid offers the luxury of moral certainty. There is no other side to this story; no good news about this political system. The students who oppose apartheid today do not believe that they will grimace over their naivet,e at some 10th reunion. And that's important to this generation.
Today's freshman class was for the most part born in 1967, after John F. Kennedy's death, after the major civil- rights victories. They grew up against a backdrop of idealism debunked, leaders defrocked, Nixon's expletives, Kennedy's women.
By 18, they are a television audience that equates politics with products, campaigns with commercials, issues with slogans. By 20, they are wary consumers who, above all else, don't want to be suckers.
In many of the college students I know, the desire to make a commitment fights with this fear of being wrong, being suckered. It's true in the classroom. It's true in their personal relationships -- this generation of children that has lived through more divorces than any other. It's true in political causes.
South Africa is an exception to this so- called "apathy." So, too, is the other major involvement of students, their increased interest in what we once called charity. In the jargon of political scientists, apartheid is a "macro" issue; charitable work a "micro" issue. But they are both morally compelling and foolproof or, should I say, suckerproof. There is also no way to make a political mistake by working in a soup kitchen. There is no harm that comes years later from helping an elderly woman do her grocery shopping.
Of course, even in these "safe" issues there is some irony. Inevitably, apartheid and charitable work are backdoors, sidedoors or corridors from opposite directions into politics. South Africa comes down to the campus in the form of divestiture and home to Washington in foreign-policy decisions. The soup- kitchen work expands into concern about causes of and cures for lines of people waiting for food.
Gradually this reluctant generation will be drawn into the mainstream of American politics. They will make political commitments, make decisions between imperfect options, take risks, make mistakes. It is happening already.
But for the moment, it is enough to watch Desmond Tutu, a man from another hemisphere, engage this wary generation of Americans with his compelling and seductive moral questions: "Are you or are you not on the side of justice? Are you or are you not on the side of right?"