Where Were You When...?
For Americans now coming of age, the Challenger explosion is the equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. It is the psychological landmark of an entire generation.
"It delivered a wake-up call," reports Arthur Levine, Ph.D., dean of Teacher's College, Columbia University. "It marked an understanding that the United States might not be competitive in technology and that has economic consequences." Or as one collegian pithily put it, "Rome fell, Greece fell, why not the U.S.?"
Levine, via the National Opinion Research Center, surveyed 9,100 people representative of the country's college population. He asked them to rate social or political events they felt were very significant. Listed in order of importance, here's what's having an impact on them:
Persian Gulf War: (89 percent) The sense of having won has gradually eroded. Students first saw it as a positive event, now negative: "Why were we there--what difference did it make?" Or, as one captured it, "Every silver lining has brought a cloud."
Challenger explosion: (85)
Fall of the Berlin Wall: (84) Another positive that has become a negative; students see Europe falling apart.
Exxon Valdez oil spill: (84) "This," said Levine, "symbolizes their biggest worry--the livability of the planet."
Rodney King affair: (83) For liberals and conservatives alike, it's evidence the United States is falling apart.
Breakup of the USSR: (81) S-c-a-r-y! It's just unleashed nuclear arsenals.
AIDS: The sexual freedom allowed other generations is gone--a potent symbol of all the social ills, not of their own making, thrust on their generation.
All this, you may think, means that today's collegians are cynical and pessimistic. But nothing could be further from the truth. Levine can't remember when he's seen more optimism and more activism; 64 percent of students are engaged in volunteer activity.
The thing is, it's all at a micro level. "They've given up at the national level. They're trying to fix things on their own block," he says.
Nor does their activism have a political cast. "Today's students don't hold to any ideology you ever heard of," Levine reports. "They're not ideological. They want change."