Young adults in America are often criticized for their apathetic attitudes and ill-motivated behaviors.
In the fall of 2008, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article contrasting today's "unengaged" university students with those of the 1960s. Students of that generation rallied against war and for civil rights in protests that echoed throughout the nation. Things have certainly changed since then, but 2009 is proving to give students new reasons to get involved with social and political issues. Opportunities abound, especially for students engaged with the liberty movement. Challenges to liberty are at the forefront of the current national debate over things like universal health care, stimulus packages, bailouts and taxes, just to name a few.
America's liberty movement calls for limited government and a greater degree of personal freedom for all — a message not entirely different from mid-20th century opposition to the military draft and racial segregation. Activism is about the battle of ideas, and young Americans have long been a force for effective change in this regard. Today's student activists are no different.
If conducted properly, student activism can be a powerful voice for freedom. Many social change theorists highlight universities as primary actors in the process. Dr. Richard Fink, president of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation based in Arlington, Va., says that the "intellectual raw material" produced at the university level is the driving force for change in the battle of ideas. Although he is primarily referring to professors and researchers, who better to communicate these ideas than the students who grace the hallowed halls of academic institutions?
Note the story of Clark Ruper, currently the program manager at Students For Liberty, an international nonpartisan group. As an undergraduate though, he was a leading student activist.
In January 2006, the University of Michigan banned the sale of Coca-Cola products on its campus at the behest of a few special interest student organizations. According to Ruper, "The reasons given were related to abusive labor and environmental practices in India and Colombia in Coca-Cola bottling facilities." Ruper and his colleagues, however, thought that the purchase of food and beverage on campus shouldn't be micromanaged top-down by administrators appeasing a minority group of students.
Ruper told students, "[The] [b]an on Coca-Cola is undemocratic. Each individual can make up his or her own mind on whether to buy Coca-Cola. [W]e don't need the administration to make those choices for us."
But Ruper needed to garner more support from his fellow students if something was to be done about the issue. So, Ruper did what he knew best. He became active and founded a new student group to specifically address this issue. They organized a two-day demonstration to pass out free cans of Coca-Cola to students on campus with labels describing the issue and the group's attempt to have the ban repealed. Using the demonstration to gain influence within the Michigan Student Assembly, Ruper and his colleagues were hoping to get enough student support to repeal the Coca-Cola product ban. The group estimates that they gave out 4,000 cans of Coca-Cola.
After winning a few seats in the Michigan Student Assembly, and following a feature story on the front page of the campus newspaper, the university lifted the ban in late April, 2006.
These students became effective activists for liberty. They considered how their message would be received by fellow students and administrators, and decided how best to send that message. If the goal of activism is to change peoples' minds about important issues, student activists need to consider how their message will be received by skeptics. Here are some questions student activists should consider before undertaking a cause:
- Are our actions divisive, arrogant or short-sighted?
- Do our actions hurt our cause or make it difficult for others to promote liberty?
- Do our actions reflect humility and integrity and reinforce our message about peace and freedom?
- Are we well-informed about this issue?
- Have we doubled-checked our facts and ensured our statements reflect the truth?
- By acting in this manner, are we increasing the likelihood that the naysayers will heed our call?
Answers to these questions greatly influence the failure or success of the liberty movement.
Student activists may not make headlines every day like the protests of the 60s, but they fight for the social and economic rights of individuals everywhere that bureaucrats take advantage of political power. America is ready to listen to what students have to say about liberty. Freedom's young voice in America has the opportunity to be heard loud and clear.
As a new school year dawns, you may find yourself drawn closer to the fight for liberty and freedom. Get involved and let your voice be heard. Visit Students for a Free Economy to learn more about how to launch an effective student outreach program on your campus.
Christopher Deming is director of campus leadership and Claire Forman is research analyst to the president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and the Center are properly cited.