Last weekend, a few friends and I were standing on my porch at about 10 p.m., talking about life over a couple beers. The conversation started out quite calm, but, as young people are wont to do, we became excited and started talking in elevated voices.
The lady from across the street walked over and said, “You guys are being way too loud, so if you don’t go inside and quiet down … I’ll call the cops. It’s a $500 fine.” There was no neighborly greeting and not a single polite word in anything she said to us.
Her message was simple and crystal clear: “You’re a drunken college student, and I’m going to call the cops because you’re loud.” She made the mistake that far too many “adults” make by dismissing us as human beings simply because we are university students.
Because we are college kids, we wouldn’t have understood had she politely asked us to quiet down. Instead, her first words to us as neighbors had to be a threat. She did not see a house full of three engineers and an architect; rather, she saw four annoying, faceless college kids.
Last year’s legislative session displayed these same attitudes, but magnified through the scope of legitimized authority. Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, suggested that it might be reckless to encourage students to vote because, “Sometimes when you are in school, your brain doesn’t work real well.”
During debate about a bill that would have made it easier for students to vote, Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, even outlined an elaborate scheme in which nefarious RAs could help forge mail-in ballots.
This wholesale dismissal and utter lack of faith in university students is disturbing, to say the least. Some of Montana’s legislators are guilty of it, but even my nameless neighbor is, too. For the overwhelming majority of human history, citizens our age have been integral members of society. We have started families, served as law-makers and generally been respected, contributing members of society.
University students are still contributing members of society, but the real “adults” have conflated the few students with MTV values with every young person pursuing a higher education. As a counterpoint, university students could take the poor examples of a number of legislators this previous session and argue that all adults are morons.
Obviously, neither of these extreme cases is logical. The partying and lack of engagement of some students give the rest of us a bad name; some legislators propose legislation that is, politely put, a waste of time. Despite a few bad eggs, both demographics are crucial to a well-functioning society.
If students are willing to engage with the older members of our society — and I know many who are — those same “adults” owe us the decency to engage us as fellow human beings and fellow citizens. With the sometimes-overwhelming number of problems our society appears saddled with, it seems clear that all demographics — the young and the old of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds — must work together. And older citizens ought to keep in mind that college students will often solve problems bravely and with creative gusto that world-weary adults would never dream of.