UC Berkeley Students' Civic Mindedness

I just finished reading Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion. It is certainly a provocative book, lambasting several aspects of American culture and society separately, all culminating in a final fifty-page-long chapter titled "The Illusion of America". Overall I found the book worth while, but near the end it devolved into a repetitive rant.

In his chapter on American universities, "The Illusion of Knowledge", Hedges spends a great deal of time discussing UC Berkeley, my alma mater. Since I know some things about UC Berkeley and I think Hedges' claims are interesting, I've decided to respond to some of what he wrote.

To understand my response, one must first understand the tone of Empire. It is basically a long analysis of what's wrong with the USA, and so when I say that Hedges discusses Berkeley, I really mean he holds Berkeley out as an example of the decline of American universities. Hedges claims the universities, Berkeley included, have "abandoned" their traditional role, which was "to ask the broad moral and social questions" and are instead becoming "high-priced occupational training centers".

Hedges extends this criticism to the students themselves through Chris Hebdon, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley who Hedges quotes extensively. Hebdon's first assertion is that the student activism that made Berkeley so famous forty five years ago has almost completely disappeared. Instead of being concerned about "globalization, corporatization, or ... the commercialization of Berkeley", students and professors are focused on "trends, prestige, and money".

My initial reaction to Hebdon's criticisms might be vocalized as: "Shut up. It's not a problem that most students are not Marxist activists." Upon further reflection, I still disagree with what he says. As for the list of things he wants students to be concerned about: Globalization is a phenomenon that affects many aspects of our society. Berkeley students study it and live it, but it is not an issue that demands radical student action. Corporatization is not a well-defined word. So that leaves the commercialization of Berkeley. I'll discuss that later, but basically the point is that Hebdon wants students to be upset about issues that I don't think are major problems.

However, I think Hebdon's criticism is valid in one sense: many Berkeley students are not concerned with politics or current events. I don't want to exaggerate or oversimplify, as Hedges does. Political Science is a very popular major, and there are many students concerned with and involved in politics. But I do think there is a huge segment of the student population that does not care about what is going on in the world, and that is a problem. Berkeley students are among those who will become very influential, and the widespread lack of civic-mindedness among the students makes me think that many will not actively use their influence to improve the world.

This discussion so far is lacking something vital: data. Luckily the University conducts an extensive survey of its undergraduate students that includes questions relevant to our discussion. Looking at Berkeley's Undergraduate Experience Survey results from 2008 and 2009, we can begin to ground what we have been discussing.

Now for a super-mega-graph of civic engagement:

I have written a separate post that contains more detailed graphs and figures, but I'll briefly explain each of the measures here.

Each of the measures is a proportion. "Will probably vote" includes students who said they will "probably" or "definitely" vote in the next election. "Will probably vote (C)" is the same thing, but taken as a proportion only of American citizens. "Talked about campaign" includes those students who said they "talked about the campaign with other students" either "a great deal", or "a significant amount". Finally, "Paid attention to issues" includes those students who said they "paid attention to candidates and issues"either "a great deal" or "a significant amount".

I don't have data to substantiate this claim, but I believe non-citizen students are less likely to pay attention to and discuss politics. If that is the case, then the latter two measures are somewhat lower than they would be had only citizens been surveyed.

There is a lot more data to examine to try to get an idea of students' worldviews and concerns. There are questions on community service, political self-identification, and time use. However, from these few measures alone I see a complex picture emerge. It seems that almost all the students planned to vote, but many did not discuss politics or pay attention to issues. How do these students decide how to vote? I have to conclude that there are many students who are rather uninformed and yet still choose to vote.

For Chris Hebdon to make his point, he would need similar graphs showing a larger proportion of students paying attention to or discussing "trends, prestige, and money" than they do politics.  However, I'd say the graphs we have are enough to show that many students are not passionate about politics. And as much as I dislike Hebdon's tone, I had the same impression when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. A lot of students there are mostly focused on their own careers.

Which brings us to the larger question: What should Berkeley students be doing with their time? Should college be a time and a place for professional preparation and academic specialization, or for political protest and social activism? Hebdon and Hedges obviously think it should be the latter. I have no problem with it being the former. People always have the choice to move for social change. Only for a few short years do they have the opportunity to explore intellectual and professional opportunities the way they can at a university.