Student Activism/Social Apathy

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In the late sixties and early seventies, the university was a cornerstone of social action. College students seemed lit up with the passion to create change and reform the way things were in society. Across the nation, there was a liveliness on college campuses, an energy of relentless revolution which that generation is still revered for. On the modern-day college campus, there are no grand riots, protests, or strikes. It is hard to tell if this is an indication of social apathy or if young people have found new outlets for social activism. A structural functionalist would conclude that student activism is still a major component of the university, and that there are simply new ways in which students can demonstrate activism. A critical theorist would disagree, not surprisingly, and conclude that social apathy is at an all time high.

Primarily, I would like to take a structural functionalist’s perspective. The University, or perhaps the education system in general, has a unique social system that has become very institutionalized over time. There are defined roles of being a student, a professor, a member of the administration, and a staff member (such as groundskeeper, cook, cleaning staff, etc.). There are standards of how different members of each group should interact with members of other groups, which at times depends of the context of the interaction. Students begin to learn these standards at the earliest age of schooling, which may be preschool at age three. They learn that there is a difference between how they are expected to speak to a teacher versus a cleaning lady versus each other. This fosters specificity over diffuseness, because actors base their actions on the established meaning of their roles. Because of this role-set, the system is mean to be orderly and productive, though productive is a relative term. There are ways within this setup that students may have their voices heard by administrative forces. An example of one is the Student Government Association. Students elect representatives who raise common concerns to the administration, which is comprised of people who are seen to have the power to create change. SGA and the administration is focused on collectivity-orientation and bases decisions on what seems to be best for the entirety of the student body.

As far as the personality system, the university makes attempts to uphold the need-drives of the individual going through college. There are many programs of study to choose from, organizations to join, places to live, types of professors to learn from, and even places to eat. There are advisors available to help students make these personal decisions as well as courses for students who are not sure what career/life path they want to pick. It is very unlikely that two students will have the same college experience. This aspect of the university system values self-orientation and generally expects students to determine their own college experience, with some help when necessary.

There is also a cultural system at play within a university. There are underlying beliefs and values that all members of the system seem to uphold. An example of this is Elon University’s Honor Code, which is posted in each classroom and declares the importance of honesty, integrity, responsibility, and respect among students. It would not be seen as decent for someone to act against these moral codes, and would probably cause them to be socially ostracized, if even just for a moment. In this concern, there is a sense of universalism. Action is based on this established set of rules and guidelines. However, there are certain situations in which particularization may come into play. If a student is struggling to pass a class and has the opportunity to cheat for a better grade, they may break the honor code for their personal interest in that situation. In such a competitive environment, that would not be too surprising. This...
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