Tradition of Political Protest No Longer A Source of Pride

Contact Jane Yang at [email protected]

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Even today, the notion of UC Berkeley spirit conjures up images of the infamous Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio and the hippie counter-culture.

But while the time-worn image has persisted through the decades, some say the clamor of UC Berkeley's political activism has quieted to a dull hum, as students are increasingly preoccupied with achieving academic and athletic excellence.

School spirit today has wandered into the realm of academia and athletics, where students are distinguishing themselves and the university through their individual successes.

"I think there is a higher proportion of people who feel ‘this is my chance, I'm path-breaking here. I need to focus on getting it done, getting an education that leads to a career,'" says UC Berkeley classics professor Robert Knapp.

Some professors on campus, however, say today's individualistic campus spirit lacks some better qualities from days past, starting with the passion for political activism and for learning for the sake of it.

"I'd say Berkeley has substituted a Mario Savio Cafe for a Mario Savio spirit," says anthropology professor Laura Nader, who came to UC Berkeley in 1960. "You look around and see people are careerists, people want to get their papers published, they have to go to meetings, there's no time to participate. Students, they're the same way. They're worrying about grad school, they think they don't have any time. People do have time-they can make time if they have a passion."

After 31 years of teaching, Knapp acknowledges a "mellowing" of students, though he still places the campus at the forefront of activist universities. He also notes today's students, smarter than ever, are getting caught up in the technicalities of getting out with a degree.

"It could all be the imaginings of an aging professor," he says, "but I think I see more students not taking material seriously, more students trying to bluff their way through exams, more students writing papers 30 minutes before class, and individuals not dealing with material because they want to learn, but because they want to accumulate enough credits to graduate."

Some students expressed the same sentiment-the pressure of challenging academic workloads makes time scarce.

Sophomore bioengineering major Amit Jain concedes he does not feel compelled to join the occasional protest or demonstration, simply because they have become something more like a public spectacle and are not worth sacrificing grades for.

"It's something that's cool to look at, but I think, ‘Well, I better study for my engineering midterm,'" he says.

Still, other students, both former and current, say throughout the university's "tamer" decades, they have continued to identify their school spirit outside of political movements. For them, school spirit comes across in more conventional ways, such as taking pride for Cal's athletic teams and acting as representatives for the campus.

When both political fervor and athletic programs were at an ebb, Steven Harris, who graduated from the class of 1993, tapped his pride for UC Berkeley elsewhere.

"At least in my time, there were very few causes that inspired any sort of meaningful protest on campus-9/11 didn't occur, neither did Mario Savio," he says. "But I found there to be a lot of school spirit in other ways."

Harris says he took pride in representing the university in such school programs as Cal in the Capitol, which facilitates student internships in Washington D.C.

"Knowing you were an ambassador for the university in a totally different city-that was meaningful," he says.

While the focus of campus spirit has shifted between political activism, athletic achievement and academic prestige throughout the decades, members of the campus community say they identify themselves with and cherish the sense of connectivity they feel to the campus.

"We have pride in our Nobel Prize winners, pride in our academic offerings, pride in our student athletes," says Carol Clarke, president of the Cal Spirit Alumni Club and member of the graduating class of 1960. "My Cal spirit is a philosophy of mine, an extension of who I am. It's just something I've always felt. I live it."


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