Student apathy can be appreciated

This year’s recipient of the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty was a student government president, the first young person to receive the award. His name is Yon Goicochea, and aside from representing the student body at his university, since 2007 he has also led the growing pro-democracy student movement in Venezuela.

Sitting in bed last week watching 23-year-old Goicochea receive the award on TV, I thought of the vast differences between student leadership here in the United States and in other countries like Venezuela. For better or for worse, American students have for a long time been known for our apathy.

Even during presidential election years, our participation is limited. In the 2004 elections, only 41.9 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds voted, as compared to 60.7 percent for the entire electorate (the record for the highest youth participation was in 1964, at 50.9 percent). Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has recently been commended for increasing the involvement of minority and young voters, but let’s face it—we’re still the most apathetic voting block.

Later on that day, I saw another story about Venezuelan news that made me think of this issue. The biggest university in the country held elections last week for a new president and other administrative staff. Candidates campaigned on different platforms, promising to meet student and faculty needs ranging from better dining facilities to improvements in the undergraduate curriculum.

Most American universities looking for a new president put together a search committee and hire an expensive executive search firm to help them indentify candidates. For those of us at Tech who are anxious to find out who Wayne Clough’s replacement will be and how the change will affect us (and have no idea), entrusting this decision to the will of students and faculty may not sound like such a bad idea.

Yet when it comes to involvement in politics, whether at the national level or at the level of our universities, American students are generally out of the loop—and don’t mind staying out of it. We have a student government association that represents us at Tech, but only 2,606 of more than 12,000 undergraduate students bothered to vote in the last SGA presidential election (and an even smaller proportion of graduate students cast a vote). Why don’t we care?

The answer may be, after all, that it makes no difference if we do. Compared to our colleagues in other countries, the risk of our lives being affected by one candidate’s victory over another is small, as no two mainstream candidates are ever radically different. At the same time, our degree of comfort and prosperity is high. We are probably the most spoiled generation in time, in the world.

This is not to downplay the differences between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, nor the important problems that we face, including health care, immigration, the economy and the war in Iraq. But honestly—if we had to choose between democracy and dictatorship, as Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez proposed in a December referendum, I guarantee we would have an opinion and we would want to voice it, no matter which side of the fence we sit on.

Of course, the United States and Venezuela are very different countries, and comparisons should be made carefully. What’s at stake for students in countries like Venezuela that are deeply divided and that have to deal with poverty, high crime rates, food shortages and high inflation is much greater than what is at stake for us. The students who elected their next university president had to choose between candidates representing vastly different ideologies and political parties. While Goicochea was accepting the $500,000 prize that came with the award, opposing students held angry protests.

At the end of the day on Jan. 20, 2009 when the next U.S. president is inaugurated, or whenever Tech’s new president is announced, nothing much will have changed in our everyday lives. Most of us will still be juggling TV, Facebook and homework that evening, and the next. And for this reason, I suggest that we should be a little thankful (if not fully accepting) for our apathy as young Americans. We are apathetic, and can continue to get away with this, because we live in a stable and wealthy democratic country with strong laws and institutions.

However, there are some dangers to our apathy. With no lobby group to promote our interests and a low voter participation rate, students have little say in government decisions, even those that affect us directly. Apply this lesson to politics at Tech, and our voice in administrative decisions is barely audible.