All quiet on the Western front: the shortage of civic students

Amidst the united cheers following the removal of Hosni Mubarak from his seat of power in Egypt, a thought crossed my mind. The image of tens of thousands marching through the streets of Cairo has certainly been powerful, even inspiring. But to what extent can we look on these events without seeing some of our own inadequacies as citizens?

We think of ourselves as having a strong national civic tradition, yet I have yet to see as passionate and large a protest in America during my lifetime as is going on in the Middle East today — especially from my own generation.

Many Americans remain in civic stagnation between the midterm elections and the next presidential race. Students at Emerson are often even less engaged, only bothering to perk up their ears every four years.

Why many students fail to engage themselves in politics and government is not very clear. The cheap answer is that we just don’t care, “we’re a school full of lackadaisical, spoiled brats” — but it’s not that simple. Nor is it as simple as a lack of understanding. We know our federal government exerts enormous influence on our lives.

Anyone who has tried to film on a Boston street corner, interview a local politician, or received a ticket from the Boston Police knows that what happens at City Hall and the State House affects us, too.

This is typically the part of an op-ed on civic engagement when the writer tells you to write a letter, make a phone call, or stand naked on a street corner with a sandwich board reading ‘Don’t Tread On Me.’ But I’ll skip this part, largely because we’ve been hearing it since we were old enough to know that the executive branch didn’t have any leaves.

This list rarely inspires anyone to do what it suggests, for a reason that I’ll call the Third Law of Civic Motion: For every laundry list of “ways to get involved,” there is an equal and opposite laundry list of “reasons why I can’t.”

These reasons range from the ineffectual (“I just don’t want to”) to the paranoid (“Government is an untrustworthy, self-serving body of lies”), but a student’s most common excuse for their lack of engagement is that of time. Which is, more often than not, a valid excuse. This would seem to be the impasse which ends the discussion: Can a full-time student be expected to go beyond being a minimally informed citizen? It may require a feat of synthesis, rather than scheduling, but I believe it’s wholly possible.

Even though our career aspirations may not extend very far into civic life, there is usually an overlap that provides an easy way to make volunteerism work. For journalism and political communication students at Emerson, the task is fairly straightforward.

For other majors, it may not be as easy, but the opportunities are still there. Acting and design tech majors might consider that their job will eventually require them to join a union; film majors will have to consider states that offer tax credits when they have the opportunity for larger-budget shoots.

Though it is less direct than taking on another chorus role or being a key grip, supporting candidates and legislation which will benefit you in the future is not time wasted: it’s an assurance for one’s professional future (and might not look too shabby on a resumé either, if you are concerned with such things).

America may not have the same need to shake off a repressive dictatorship that Egypt or Tunisia has had. We have applauded the events in Egypt only to miss its clear message: an engaged populous is not merely a boon to real change, but a prerequisite.

Though we may consider ourselves marketers and singers and writers first, the truth is we are citizens of the United States first, and with that title comes the responsibility to stay involved.