On the failure of the social conscience

OK, so some PSU students may not take our student government, ASPSU, very seriously. But do they even take themselves seriously?

Recently, a veritable hemorrhage of student leaders from ASPSU has raised this very question. No fewer than seven student leaders, from positions ranging from the SFC to the judicial board, were found to be in violation of the ASPSU’s GPA and credit requirements. Three of the seven were fired, three were granted exceptions and one resigned and skipped town. Several students cited medical or personal emergencies, while others pointed to a lack of financial aid.

Naturally, I find no fault with students who find themselves simply unable to fulfill obligations to student boards because of personal or family emergencies. But the other reasons ��- financial aid conundrums, dropping classes and getting incompletes – are enough to give me pause.

The entire episode raises serious questions. First of all, it’s a well-appreciated fact that the financial aid situation at PSU is, in a word, troublesome. Not to decry the improvements that have been made over the past year and the extremely hardworking individuals who make up the office, but when student leaders are allowing their GPAs to fall below 2.0 or taking fewer credits than required simply because they cannot afford to pay for more classes (or are working too hard to try to make up a financial aid shortfall) you know there’s some room for improvement.

Secondly, the GPA requirement of a minimum 2.0 to maintain good standing is pretty low. It’s C- level work. If (and I stress the “if” since I don’t know for certain) any of the seven students involved were flagged primarily because of falling GPAs, the implications are monstrous. How can we expect to be governed by students whose academic success is, by definition, below “average”?

Of course, I am painfully aware of the irony of that statement when transposed to politics at a national level.

Setting aside for a moment the political and institutional problems this issue brings up, let’s examine the possibility that all this is indicative of something bigger and badder going on, an underlying issue that threatens to do much more than simply vacate some seats on the SFC. My fear is that this sort of event will become more and more common as we go forward, due to two interlocking forces: apathy and anxiety.

Let me explain. The anxiety I’m talking about is the anxiety of responsible, concerned citizens and students who want to make this world a better place. Anyone with even a dim grasp of human events over the past decade should be able to connect with their inner anxiety with regards to the state of the world today. The world, and our current society in particular, faces a number of interlocking challenges that, apart from being devilishly complex, carry a potentially lethal social and economic payload. Don’t believe me? Go to Powell’s and spend 20 minutes browsing the new books section. There you will see scholarly books written about the problems of water conservation and privatization, the coming oil crisis, the future cost of current economic policy, the unraveling of our absurdly hodgepodge health care system, and the growing threats of international anti-U.S. insurgency.

All this, read and comprehended by a concerned citizen, will cause anxiety – and rightly so. These are enormous problems, with complex and multivariate causes and effects, and implications at every level of society and government. What is one single citizen to do to address them?

And this is where apathy enters the picture. Psychological observation from clinical practice tells us that anxiety and depression are closely interlinked, one often feeding into the other seamlessly. So it is with anxiety and apathy, a concerned citizen, faced with the overwhelming nature of a number of national and global problems, may feel so beleaguered that he or she simply turns it off. As a coping mechanism this works because sticking one’s head back in the sand and returning to a “just gotta get mine” mentality allows one a narrow focus with demonstrable, measurable results. The danger inherent in this focus on individualism is that it weakens the fabric of social consciousness, further reducing the individual’s faculty for and ability to think in a socially constructive way.

I am not saying that the seven members of ASPSU who were found in violation are all guilty of consciously or unconsciously putting on their blinders and ignoring the problems facing the PSU campus. I am not even asserting that their behavior is a direct result of a sort of overloaded social consciousness. It is merely one possible explanation that I think comprehensively accounts for the causes and effects we see in politics and personal behavior today at local and national levels. Yes, there are people out there who care deeply about social and political issues and wish to improve the world – but the greater their understanding of the depth and breadth of the problems facing us today, the more shocked and helpless I believe they will feel.

I do hope that I’m wrong, and that this event truly does not point to a larger, more insidious underlying issue.

But I doubt it.