By William Stimson
Above, a shot from the field during the 1922 UW-WSC game – the 16th “Apple Cup” although it was not named as such until 1962. Photo courtesy of the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries.
The term “The Greatest Generation” was coined by journalist Tom Brokaw, who used it as the title for his 1998 book about the generation of young people that won World War II. The nation accepted the idea by acclamation. Clearly there was something special about the young people who came of age in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.
A year after Brokaw’s book was published, a Harvard sociologist by the name of Robert Putnam demonstrated the same idea statistically. Putnam drew up elaborate comparisons of how much citizens of different eras were involved in the civic life of the nation. He collected statistics on voting, charitable giving, volunteering, and the like, through the twentieth century. The peak of civic involvement was, again, that generation of the decade before World War II.
What caused this special “long civic generation” – as Putnam called it – is not easy to explain. Putnam did find one important clue. His comparisons show clearly that the more schooling a person has, the more he or she is likely to be an active citizen. A college graduate is almost twice as likely to vote, volunteer and otherwise take part in civic life, as a high school graduate. It appears there is truth in the long-held assumption that the more a people learn about the larger society, the more they embrace obligations toward it.
But it is more complicated than that because there are large differences even among college graduates. A college graduate in 1940 was much more likely to be civically involved in the society than the college graduate of today. There must be some differences in the college experience and now.
The differences are pretty obvious. A student who arrived on the pre-World War II campus entered a dormitory, fraternity or sorority that was much more than living quarters. These all had the stated goal of training their members to be participants in campus life. A housing group gained prestige from the civic activity of their members. Students were urged, sometimes required, to try out for sports, debate, theater, and a dozen other activities.
The typical college student before World War II was marooned on the campus 24-hours a day, with no television, no Internet, not even an automobile to go home on the weekend. Out of sheer boredom, the students of that era invented an “extra-curriculum” of clubs, societies, teams, dances, and competitions.
The boring campus turned into a beehive of social activity. A typical campus newspaper describes a weekend of two or three elaborate dances, campus theater, various dorm parties, and a big game of some sort which requires everyone’s attendance.
The various housing units competed for campus political leadership. This led to rousing campaigns to turn out the vote. Students were better at this than the national parties. In an election at Washington State College in 1941, 1,300 people, fully half of the campus, attended a rally for one candidate. An astounding 82 percent of students voted.
These raucous, good-natured competitions that were all but forgotten once the votes were counted. The actual power of student government was nil; what counted was the exercise of the election.
The Big Game was the patriotic cause of the whole campus. All houses and all clubs united in the cause of rallying loudly the night before, filling the stadium the day of, and appropriately celebrating or mourning the outcome. This was the test of a student body.
The American college before World War II was a virtual academy for civic involvement. Students learned that not much happened after class without personal initiative. They started up so many activities that they soon learned cooperation was necessary. They became accustomed to the idea of stepping up to civic responsibility.