U-M students gathered outside the Diag to protest the Vietnam War draft. The draft ended in 1973, when the United States converted to volunteer-based military enlistment. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library

Student life at the University of Michigan in the late 1950s and early 1960s was, for the most part, like most other college campuses. That is, quiet and sleepy—save for the occasional panty raid.

McCarthyism had clamped down on political dissent, and the years were marked with a sort of conformity.

“Students were expected to do the conventional thing—prepare themselves for a predicable, comfortable life and be happy with that because it was materially better than what their parents had struggled through during the war,” says Helen Fox, a lecturer in the Social Theory and Practice Program in LSA’s Residential College, who teaches courses on race and racism, development in the Global South, human rights, and nonviolence. “If there was any dissatisfaction, they didn’t express that.”

And then, seemingly overnight, things changed. At U-M. Berkeley. Madison, Wisconsin, and other college campuses.

“Everybody was sort of going along and nothing was happening, and then all of a sudden everything was happening,” says Fox, who was a student at Berkeley in the ’60s.

In Ann Arbor, students—perhaps emboldened by John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the steps of the Michigan Union and its call for a more global consciousness, or maybe angered by the secret bombings of North Vietnam—began protesting in earnest. They marched against the war, the draft, war research by U-M, military recruiting, and ROTC offices on campus. They supported civil rights, and threatened campus-wide strikes to get better off-campus housing and a student-run bookstore.  

U-M staged the first teach-in, with professors teaching classes all day and into the night as a way to educate students about the war. And black students called a campus-wide strike and took over the administration building, chaining the doors to protest the lack of black students and professors.

In March 1970, frustrated with U-M's slow response to integration demands, more than 200 picketers marched outside Hill Auditorium. The Black Action Movement's largely nonviolent efforts to end discrimination on campus helped stay a call to the National Guard by U-M President Robben Fleming. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library

Given these defining, historic moments from the 1960s and early ’70s, how can today’s U-M students expect to measure up from an activist standpoint?

Fox examined this issue in her book, Their Highest Vocation: Social Justice and the Millennial Generation (2012, New York/London: Peter Lang). In her interviews with Michigan student leaders, progressive faculty, academic advisors, and heads of international and domestic programs, she has learned that today’s students are more progressive than their ’60s counterparts in some important ways. They possess a more global view and are more active philanthropically at a younger age by the time they arrive on campus.

“This generation is more accepting of full human equality than any other generation in history. Interracial dating, gay rights, gay marriage: all of that seems normal to them.,” Fox says.

Millennials (a term commonly used to describe those born between 1981 and 2000) also have a powerful tool in technology, Fox says. They use online petitions to gauge early support of a cause, and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook allow them to bring an enormous amount of attention to an issue—as evidenced when the short film Kony 2012 went viral online in March 2012. But they don’t show up in big numbers to protest. Demonstrations against the Iraq War, for example, were mostly filled with older people.

In March 2012, Invisible Children Inc. released the short film Kony 2012 attempting to raise global awareness of Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. To date the video has received over 90 million views on YouTube.

“These students, in general, are not comfortable going to big demonstrations,” she says. “Their politics is not confrontational. They don’t see the point of marching and chanting if nobody seems to be listening.”

Fox does say that if there was a draft for the Iraq or Afghanistan wars or if police pepper-sprayed the Occupy movement participants like they did at Berkeley, the U-M campus would spring to life in the form of large demonstrations. “If our students were more personally impacted by injustice, then they would be out there,” she says.

But today’s college students, by and large, have been raised, schooled, and “trained” in a way by technology to expect quick results. Demonstrations typically don’t yield immediate policy changes. “So they can get discouraged more easily than students of the past,” she says.

Today’s students also have been protected and praised so much that they come to college “with a feeling of competence that can be rather naïve,” Fox says.

“Yeah, you’ve done some wonderful things, you feel like you’ve made a difference,” she says, referring to Millennials’ long list of volunteer efforts and community service projects. “But now that you’re in college you want to go out and change the world before you have any idea of how complex the problems are. That’s naïve, but there’s something wonderful about it at the same time. It’s energetic, it’s optimistic.”

Fox says she loves the enthusiasm and goal-setting of today’s students. But she says students must first learn to analyze situations and problems before taking action: “Without an understanding, without that analysis, their activism risks being very superficial and even a bit arrogant, which is something they would never want to be.”

So what do today’s students need to do in order to be not only activists, but smart activists? For starters, Fox says, students should slow down. Pare the busy schedule and prioritize; think twice before becoming a double major with a double minor involved in five clubs. Stop texting so much and start talking and listening to the people around you; look for courses that promote discussion and deep learning.

And Fox would like to see “a bit more fearlessness.”

“I think you have to be able to take on issues of human rights in ways that might step on some people’s toes,” she says. “To develop a point of view on controversial questions that makes you stand out.  Caring is not enough. You have to take the risk that people might not like you.”

“With these tools—critical analysis, an understanding of complexity, a political point of view, and the ability to connect personally with the people they want so badly to help—this generation of passionate, energetic students could do a lot of good.””

Look for the Fall 2012 issue of LSA Magazine, themed “Versus,” to tackle more of these issues. From politics to human rights to scientific research, we’ll investigate the ways in which people, organizations, organisms, and more address conflict and settle differences. Or, sometimes, how they don’t.