At the age of 21, Mario Savio gave his “Against the Wheels” speech and emerged as “the nation’s most prominent student leader.” He and 800 others were arrested the day he gave this speech in Mario Savio Photo from Life Magazine, 1965  Mario Savio, 19651964 in protest to UC Berkely’s ban on campus-based political activity and fund-raising. Savio was attempting to raise money in support of the Civil Rights movement after returning from a summer in Mississippi where he was working to get African Americans registered to vote. Savio was sentenced to 120 days in jail for his involvement this day. He later told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle that he would gladly do it all over again. He was a college student. He was 21. (See the video clip from his speech below.)

The other day one of my students was making some off-handed comment about how the readings for our class (or, more specifically, the writing prompts) are stupid because they’ve got nothing to do with what he’s interested in; he doesn’t care about the things he’s been asked to write about. I suspended my frustration with his utterly self-absorbed comment momentarily, to be fair, and asked him what it is that he does care about. He looked at me and gave some smart-ass comment. I stood resolutely and asked him again. I really wanted to know. I think in that moment he understand my sincere interest, but he looked at me–and then away–and said that he didn’t know.


Savio’s “Against the Wheels” Speech, 1964

Is this what it means to be a young college student today? I understand that these are formative years, where young men and women (or should I say children?) are trying to figure out exactly who they are and what they believe in. I get that. But it is also a time when you should be getting excited about your place in the world, not increasingly indifferent. What accounts for the army of apathetic students that steadily march through our classes? Certainly, these comments and observations do not apply to all–of course not. But the trend is overwhelming. More and more students shuffle in each year and sit there vapidly, quick to agree if it means getting their grade and moving on or quick to mutter complaints about too much work or their lack of interest. I’ve yet to meet more than a handful who are ready to have a serious conversation, to enter that grown-up world where, in fact, things do matter and there is plenty to care about.