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Declaring Themselves

As we were finishing this politically themed issue in mid-August, the national political scene was heating up. But the Homewood campus was preternaturally quiet, in that drowsy lull before students return for the start of the academic year.

What, I wondered, would autumn bring, in terms of student political involvement? In this crucial presidential election year, with the nation at war, will Hopkins undergrads veer toward activism or apathy? To get some idea, I turned to political science professor Matthew Crenson, A&S '63, whose arrival on the Hopkins faculty in 1969 coincided with a traffic-blocking student protest against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"That sort of thing doesn't happen anymore," Crenson told me with a chuckle, "but I have noticed an upsurge in student political interest over the past several years. It's not 1970 all over again, but there has been a definite change in mood and rise in political [involvement] among Hopkins students."

Crenson said he's seen undergrad political activism wax and wane over the decades. Most notably, after Richard Nixon resigned as president, he says, political interest "declined precipitously" ("as did enrollment in my courses," he added ruefully).

More recently, however, Crenson said he's been surprised to see a spike in political interest. First sign: Last year students asked him to moderate a debate between the College Republicans and College Democrats in the AMR dorms. "I knew from experience these things got little turnout," he said. But he arrived to find a standing-room-only crowd. And the spirited debate that followed drew a vociferous response from many in the audience. Sign #2: Crenson mistakenly forgot to put a cap on this fall's Urban Politics and Policy course, a class that normally draws about 25 students. To date 64 have signed up, "and others are still asking to get in," he reported.

In an era when voter turnout is shamefully low, particularly among the 18 to 25 set, signs like these are heartening. Will an increased passion for things political (and concerted get-out-the-vote efforts made by youth voter organizations like Rock the Vote and Declare Yourself) translate into a stronger than usual student turnout at the polls come November? Crenson is optimistic. Hopkins students — bright, committed, talented, insightful — will be casting votes in larger than usual numbers, he believes.

For the future of our democracy, let's hope he's right.

-Sue De Pasquale

Return to September 2004 Table of Contents

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