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The 10 Most Politically Active Schools

College Activism

by Brendan McKenna

Being political can mean different things to different students at different schools. To some, it is embracing social consciousness in everyday life: recycling, putting your money where your mouth is, and acting tolerant. To still more, being political is a business, a career path that might very well be financially lucrative in the near future. Meanwhile, some actually want to get out and fight, directly protesting perceived injustices. Each kind of politics is represented here, in our list of the most political schools in the nation. Some are large, some are small, some continue to be politically active to this day, while some aren’t as apt to stand up and fight for what’s right as much as they once did.

#10: Hampshire College

Legendary for its go-your-own-way attitude, Hampshire offers a grade-free curriculum, heavy on student independence in planning educational paths. Here’s how we characterize the student body: “they are usually loud, outspoken, creative ‘hippie or hipster’ types who fall on the very, very, very far left side of the political spectrum.” An interesting point was made in a student review of the college: when everyone is so universally different, so alternative, so loud and ready to fight for what’s right, you run the risk of everyone seeming the same. “There's this saying on campus that Hampshire is made up entirely of kids who were the outcasts in their high school, which I think is pretty spot-on. It's strange, because everyone is so unique individually, but when you see us all together, we all look the same.” Suffice it to say, Hampshire is a proud place, embracing an alternative educational game plan that seems to work exceptionally well: it boasts one of the highest graduate school placement rates in the country. It also helped Hampshire place eighth in our list of the smartest colleges.

#9: Columbia University

Columbia is 250 years young, boasts alumni who have won everything from Nobel to Oscar, and falls in our top ten for political students. In its long history, students have always fought for what they felt was right, and considering its age (by far the oldest university on our list) it likely helped to pioneer student activism in America. Certainly in 1968 all eyes were on student activists when two major protests exploded, one against the school's expansion into Morningside Heights (the campus’ neighborhood, bordering Harlem) and another against a Columbia Pentagon weapons think-tank. Students and faculty also led the push for divestment from South Africa during apartheid, and more recently spoke out against a speech delivered by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on Columbia's campus. That being said, some might disagree with the impact of Columbia’s protest history. “The campus altogether is pretty cynical about even the most well-intentioned causes or the most horrifying events. We just want to get our good grades and go,” remarks a student who also claims that Darfur, Palestinian independence, etc. events are always attended by the same 50 students—meaning those 50 must really know how to protest.

#8: University of Wisconsin-Madison

The University of Wisconsin came in tenth place in our top drinking schools survey, and takes eighth place here. We suspect that part of that comes from its sheer size: with 30,000 undergraduate students (by far the largest institution on this list), it’s large enough to cater to a wide range of interests, both celebratory and political. But there is a history behind the student activists of today: in the 1960s and 1970s, violent demonstrations swept through the campus as students fought against the Vietnam War. Like number nine, it was one of the centers of activism in those decades, but seemingly unlike all the other schools on this list, an actual political, student-led bombing attack targeted the campus (the Army Math Research Center in 1970), which resulted in one death and severe damage to Sterling Hall. The students involved were actually on the run from the law (with one never located). Many current students believe that school pride and football, along with partying, trump politics these days, but one government major observed, "Wisconsin is a predominantly white campus (but our diversity rates are higher than many institutions) that is rather liberal (but there's a great deal of political vigor on both sides—it's more true that we're a very political campus than that we're just a liberal campus)." Times change, but the reputation for crusading Badgers, liberal or moderate, continues to this day.

#7: Macalester College

At Minnesota's Macalester, international students make up a larger percentage of the campus population than is the norm at other colleges. In addition, the school boasts a long tradition of diversity and rigorous academics—a fertile environment for the growth of future Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars. Activism also tends to run through students' blood, which shouldn't be a surprise considering a history of liberal beliefs in Saint Paul. "I think students are very politically aware and politically active, with people from the very far left to the center." Students are also deeply involved in clubs and organizations on campus, and as one senior commented, "There are almost always students handing out flyers in front of the Campus Center at lunch, and there are usually petitions to sign in the basement of the Campus Center." None of this should be a surprise, considering a particularly famous alumnus is Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

#6: Knox College

Instead of semesters, Knox in Galesburg, Illinois, offers three 10-week class terms for students. It also limits the professors to two classes during these periods, which means there are more opportunities for one-on-one time. Not only that, but the college awards $250,000 research awards annually to undergrad students in the science and creative fields. This allows for personal and intellectual growth, and, a sophomore notes, "At Knox, I have always felt free to be myself, however weird and wacky that might be.” While it may be left-leaning and politically aware, it is also very Greek (a strange combination perhaps), but students note that the fraternities and sororities are more inclusive than the ones you might find at larger state schools in the region. "Despite its size, the Greek system is largely a positive presence on campus and is not elitist," says one undergrad. The liberal and Greek intermingling may have a lot to do with the limited off-campus social options—Galesburg is in the middle of nowhere. Does that mean that Knox students rally on the quad against Big Oil while sporting their fraternity or sorority sweatshirts?

#5: Oberlin College

Oberlin, located in Ohio, has long been known as progressive—putting the "liberal" in liberal arts. It was the first college to admit African-American students, lets students teach their own classes, and emphasizes learning over exams or a lucrative career. Being political here means being socially conscious and creative as you go about your daily life, with one student characterizing the Oberlin college experience in this way: "nothing is unusual here, from nudity in the quad to puking contests in the name of ‘art’ to men wearing dresses around campus. We are the social conservative's nightmare." Free thinkers should rejoice, as many students note that there is not really a wrong way to get things done on campus, but some might find their time at the college to be a challenge. "I would change how politically correct everyone seems to be; to a point it’s necessary but sometimes it feels so forced and unnatural, like people are just reciting what they're told they should say instead of what they really want to.”

#4: Claremont McKenna College

Claremont McKenna, prestigious academically (in the top ten for most selective colleges in America with an acceptance rate of only 16%) and a beneficiary of membership in the Claremont Consortium, is also tops for political activism.  However, its character differs from that of Pitzer (a fellow Claremont school and number three on our list)—the students are more conservative and more athletic (and seem to appreciate Greek life and drinking more than at Pitzer). The academic focus is on economics and public policy, and many students choose to study abroad, or at the Washington Program, which includes a full-time internship in Washington, DC, along with three classes and meetings with prominent political figures in the capital. Plus, there is the influential Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College, the student government, and another way for students to get involved in politics. One undergrad suggests that “[t]he small student body leads to serious elections and legitimate races. Chances are that you have personally met all the candidates and may be good friends with a couple.” Why wouldn’t students be political when a school offers you the chance to meet and work with prominent Washingtonians?

#3: Pitzer College

Instead of embracing a rainbow of political beliefs like the top two schools on our list, Pitzer is known widely for its liberal character, which pervades nearly all aspects of college life. And what a college life it is: all the benefits of being part of the larger Claremont Consortium (like number four, Claremont McKenna), with a student body that is just under 1,000 students strong. Student activism plays a big part in the college experience, as one student notes: “Pitzer's school pride is not expressed in traditional channels (like sports teams, since Pitzer sports are paired with Pomona), but rather through the kind of student activism that characterizes an overwhelming majority of those who attend.” Thus, politics = sport at Pitzer, with school pride reflected in fighting for what students believe in. Like Hampshire, Pitzer also is one of our top ten smartest schools.

#2: George Washington University

Unlike our number one school, George Washington University is anything but suburban, located smack-dab in the middle of DC and mere blocks from the White House. Students are encouraged from the very beginning to immerse themselves in a city life that can be at times academic, social, and political. Because of its strategic location in the nation’s capital, students also embrace politics and people, but from all sides of the political spectrum, “I thought I was accepting of everyone before I came here, but now I'm best friends with people who are gay, super religious, super not-religious, etc., and we all hang out.”

Passion for sports is at a lower level, since the school lacks a football team. Instead, excitement is directed at professors and the internship connections they bring with them, as many faculty members are connected to the federal government in some way. “My econ professor would talk about calculating the nation's gross domestic product—and then he'd go do it that afternoon for the government!” Extremely accepting of everyone, super-involved in internships and clubs, GW students embrace everything the setting and the classes have to offer.

#1: American University

American, located in Washington, DC, is widely known as a center for political science in the country. Many of its students choose the school for its exemplary political internship opportunities, still more because of its (suburban) location in the vibrant capital city. The university has particularly strong law and government programs, which makes sense due to its setting, but it also wants to encourage overall worldliness, requiring all students to enroll in its core liberal arts curriculum as well. A student notes that “the best thing about American is the opportunities that are available to students. I am a freshman and I already have an internship with a congressman.” Interestingly, this is a different kind of political awareness than at the other schools, as indicated by the third most-popular program: business. It seems to be less about activism and more about the business of power at American. All in all, academics reign supreme—over Greek life (which is quite popular) and athletics. “I think students who go to college for the stereotypical frat-boy reasons of being crazy, partying a lot, and going to sports games in full body paint would not fit in here. It's not that AU students don't have fun. But a lot of kids here are very driven and put academics before everything else.” It must be pretty exciting to be 18 years old and well on your way to becoming a political power broker.

An interesting group of schools, and you might have noticed another pattern: some are Northern, some Midwestern, some from the Left Coast, but none are Southern (unlike our list of top drinking and top sports schools, which were more geographically diverse). It probably shouldn’t surprise you that many of our top political schools have traditionally been at the forefront of the student protest movement in America—apathetic they are not.


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