I sat down in the Ladd House living room a couple of weeks ago to hear about student activism at Bowdoin. The four students speaking each represented different groups: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Radical Alternatives, the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA). The students spoke about what they do and why they do it. Three of us were there to listen, but their message addressed the whole community. 

They represent a minority (likely larger than it appears) of Bowdoin students who are dissatisfied with the routine of campus life. Their message: the system we operate in is shallow and passive. The daily routine that we fall into keeps us from learning what we really need to learn (and doing the things we need to do). That sort of claim demands context and explanation.

Matt Goodrich ’15 and Christopher Wedeman ’15, from BCA and SJP respectively, were both very unhappy during their first year at Bowdoin. They felt inconsequential, “channeled and oppressed by the daily routine.” So they started clubs in which people could express feelings that were stifled by the campus culture. 

SJP gave Wedeman a feeling of home at Bowdoin—the support and group dynamic excited him. Catalina Gallagher ’16—who has been a participant in SJP, BCA and Radical Alternatives—said it would be very hard to be at Bowdoin and not be a part of student activism.

But they did not found or join these groups just to make friends. Their involvement stems from a deeper dissatisfaction with Bowdoin. 

Kaylee Wolfe ’15, the student director of the WRC, spoke to the challenge of “chipping away at a very real problem” through a club, which exists within a framework established by Bowdoin. “It’s a game of learning,” she said. 

These groups focus on different issues and take different approaches to their work, but each wants the same thing. 

As Gallagher put it, there’s a lot of talk, but no follow through. Students are taught to think critically about problems but not encouraged to force the issues in any real way. 
“Most of what we do is very shallow,” Goodrich said. “We have to look beyond the surface level of issues.” 

Wedeman cited the example of Bowdoin’s commitment to the environment. It’s “greenwashing,” he said. The school sells an environmental image but deals with the problems in a very shallow way. Most of BCA’s work has focused on mobilizing students and the administration to support a real commitment to dealing with environmental issues, with mixed results. 

The underlying problem? “Nobody feels any pressure to uphold ‘The Offer,’” Wolfe said. 
The Offer of the College invites students to use their time at Bowdoin to become leaders. These students condemned the school and administration, but they were really criticizing us, the students. 

One can certainly make the argument that the school has a responsibility to encourage us to act on important issues, but that’s never been the role of the College. It’s always been the role of students to shape their own educations.

Every student has his or her own path to a true education, Wedeman said, but “there is a clash between what we really need...and what we’re told to do.” 

We need the skills and perspectives necessary to effect positive change in the world, not just to get good grades. 

To be “leaders in all walks of our lives,” our learning must be focused and reflective. Not to sound self-important, but the world needs us right now. Every day innocent people are denied rights and killed, species go extinct (at a terrifying rate), and more carbon crowds our atmosphere. The world is incredibly and increasingly unstable. 

Our generation will need to respond with leadership, creativity and urgency. That urgency has to inform our learning now. We cannot be complacent about the state of our planet or indifferent to our role in changing it. We have tremendous resources behind us, but we do not live The Offer of the College just by going here. We have to hold ourselves accountable to the common good. 

You don’t have to be a student activist at Bowdoin, but you have to take an active interest. We don’t all have the fire to start a club, petition and protest. But be urgent in what you do. Be aware of why you do it. Learn deliberately. More depends on it than you think. We should not talk about homework like it’s a job we do just to get by. It’s a privilege and a powerful advantage to go here. We have a responsibility not to be passive.

Ben Bristol is a member of the Class of 2017.