Optimistic Portrait of Today's College Students

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1998 | Go to article overview

Optimistic Portrait of Today's College Students


Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Defying Generation X and a host of simplistic labels, today's college students worry the nation's social institutions are falling apart - yet remain amazingly upbeat about the future.

Irreconcilable contradictions? Maybe. But not to Arthur Levine, who says 66 percent of students are optimistic because they are personally involved in improving the world in a grass-roots way that he calls "localism."

If anyone in higher education can explain such apparent contradictions it would be Dr. Levine. He has interviewed students at hundreds of colleges, writing or co-authoring 10 books - most of them about college students' attitudes and their motivations. Levine is a practical man who believes in chipping away at education's larger problems. An ardent supporter of the liberal arts, he says colleges must provide students with a core body of knowledge that puts both personal and global problems in perspective. His goal is to keep student concerns - which are rising along with their optimism - from overwhelming them. Today, as president of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, Levine paints an authoritative portrait of college students. "When Hope and Fear Collide: a Portrait of Today's College Student" is his most recent effort with co-author Jeanette Cureton. "I've never run into a group that believed more that an individual could make a difference," he said in a recent interview. "But what they see is the old order falling apart and they're not sure what's going to replace it, and they're scared." Students in the 1980s were different, he says. That generation inherited a world shaped by Vietnam and Watergate. While optimistic about their own future, they were pessimistic about the future of the country. But something happened in the early 1990s. "It was like flipping a light switch," he says. Students began to be much more hopeful. It was not optimism of the "Pollyanna-ish variety," he writes in his book. It occurred as students focused more on small-scale volunteer and service activities. Fully 64 percent of more than 9,000 college students said they were involved in some service activity, according to a 1993 Levine survey. "I can't do anything about the theft of nuclear-grade weapons materials in Azerbaijan," one student at the University of Colorado at Boulder told him. …

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