It has become customary to accuse undergraduates of indifference to politics. This accusation is unquestionably a just one, although there is at present an awakening of political interest, stimulated by the depression in addition to the inevitable excitement of an election year. The real trouble is not that students are indifferent intellectually to politics, but that their interest is not positive; political inquiry is unconnected with undergraduate experience. The student may be sufficiently aware of current political problems to talk about them, but actually they mean nothing to him because he never thinks of them as possible influences in his own life.
When the undergraduate is exhorted to take an interest and a part in politics it is usually immediate, practical politics that the speaker has in mind. College, however, is not the place to acquire a knowledge of practical politics and in many ways it unfits a man for a successful political career. The real importance of college, politically speaking, is that it provides security for four years in which a man can study politics in principle and acquire a basis for a rational political philosophy. If a man goes out from college into politics the pressure of circumstance and of immediate problems may prevent his ever attaining to an understanding of the essentials of which everyday politics are the outward expression. If he has studied political ideas at college, although their abstract perfection may be lost in actual life, yet he has the critical background necessary for effective action. Even if college men do not go into politics their training in political theory will make them intelligent citizens capable of exerting a healthy influence. If politics are ever to be constructed on any more solid foundation than that of opportunism dictated by mass emotions and ignorance then there must be leadership, drawing its strength from the principles which it asserts.
When discussing the relation of undergraduates to politics, therefore two things should be kept in mind: first, that an interest in politics should be there than merely intellectual, that it should carry the conviction of citizenship; secondly, that college should provide a critical basis for political action and not a working knowledge of practical politics.