Student Politics and the University

"The university now suffers from the consequences of an untempered and irrational attack on American society, government, and university, one to which we as academics have contributed, and on which we have failed to give much light"
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It is scarcely possible to write anything about students and the university crisis now without looking back at what one has written over the past five years—and I began to write on this subject in December, 1964, reviewing the first climax of the Berkeley student crisis.

This has the usual sobering effect on human presumption. It turns out one was about half wrong and half right. Both the areas where one was wrong and the areas where one was right are of some interest.

Where I was right: at the beginning I, and others, argued that the issue at Berkeley (and elsewhere) was not one of free speech. Free speech existed at Berkeley, and we argued that very early in the first crisis two other issues had in effect replaced it. One was, would the university become the protected recruiting and launching ground for radical political activity directed to various ends, among them the overthrow of the basic system of operation of a democratic society? And second, would the student tactics of disruption, mild as they appear now in the perspective of four and a half years of increasing escalation, be applied to the basic concerns of the university itself (teaching and research), as well as to such peripheral matters as the political activities permitted on campus?

Those of us who by December, 1964, had decided the free-speech issue was solved, and was then spurious, considered these two issues the dominant ones; those who opposed us thought we were ridiculously exaggerating the most distant possible dangers to free speech, free research, and free teaching. They emphasized on the contrary the facts (with which we all agreed) that the student rebels themselves strongly resisted any tendency toward totalitarianism or even central control in their own movement; that the student leaders had found their political orientation in fighting for the rights of Negroes in the South, and for job opportunities for them in the Bay Area; and that young radical civil libertarians, not Communists, were the center of the radical movement. And they pointed out—and this was a very powerful argument indeed —that the young rebels had brought a refreshing sense of community, one that joined students and faculty as well as student with student, into an institution that had been marked by a far too strong concern simply with professional and academic standards, and which had done almost nothing to feed essential needs for close sharing with others, participation, joint action, and common facing of dangers.

These were certainly serious arguments in those distant days, and I doubt that those who in the end voted against a faculty resolution which sanctioned the student revolution felt at all easy with their position. Could one really believe that these attractive young people, many of whom had risked their lives in the South, who had taken up so many causes without concern for their own personal future, themselves carried any possible danger to free speech, free teaching, free research? In the end, both sides consulted their feelings—those who had felt the chill of a conformity flowing from an ostensible commitment to freedom voted one way; those who felt the warmth of a community united in common action voted the other. (This is extravagant, of course; there were many other reasons for going one way or another.)

After these chaotic four and a half years, I have no doubt that on this point my friends and I were right. The Free Speech Movement, which stands at the beginning of the student rebellion in this country, seems now almost to mock its subsequent course. In recent years, the issue has been how to defend the speech, and the necessary associated actions, of others. The right of unpopular political figures to speak without disruption on campus; the right of professors to give courses and lectures without disruption that makes it impossible for others to listen or to engage in open discussion; the right of professors to engage in research they have freely chosen; the right of government and the corporations to come onto the campus to give information and to recruit personnel; the right of students to prepare themselves as officers on the campus: all these have been attacked by the young apostles of freedom and their heirs.

The organizations that defend academic freedom, the AAUP and the ACLU, and the others, which have so long pointed their heavy guns toward the outside—for defense against conservative trustees, newspapers, legislators, and vigilante communities—are now with some reluctance swinging them around so they face inward. Anyone who has experienced the concrete situation in American universities knows that the threat to free speech, free teaching, free research, comes from radical white students, from militant black students, and from their faculty defenders. The trustees of the University of California may deny credit to a course in which Eldridge Cleaver is the chief lecturer, but radical students in many places (including campuses of the University of California) have effectively intimidated professors so they cannot give courses they were prepared to give. It is a peculiar sign of the times that the denial of credit seems to many a more monstrous act than the denial of freedom to teach.

Thus, we were right in pointing to the dangers. Where were we wrong? Our gravest mistake was that we did not see what strength and plausibility would soon be attached to the argument that this country was ruled by a cruel and selfish oligarchy devoted to the extension of the power and privileges of the few and denying liberty and even life to the many; and to the further assertion that the university was an integral part of this evil system. It was not possible to predict, in December, 1964, that the spring of 1965 would see an enormous expansion of the American role in Vietnam, and would involve us in a large-scale war that was to be fought by this country with unparalleled, one-sided devastation of an innocent civilian population and its land. We had never been in this position before. Where we were overwhelmingly powerful—as against Spain in 1898—there was no occasion or opportunity or capacity to engage in such horrible destruction; where we were horribly destructive—as in Europe and Japan in 1944 and 1945—it was against powerful opponents who had, in the eyes of most Americans, well merited destruction. There were some excuses even for the atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were some mitigating circumstances. There were hardly any in Vietnam, unfortunately, except for the arguments, which became less and less impressive over time, that we were after all a democratic society, and had gotten involved in such a war through democratic processes; and the further arguments that our strategy was designed to save a small nation from subversion, and our tactics were intended to save American lives.

The split between liberals and radicals

e have to examine this moment in American history with the greatest care if we are ever to understand what happened afterward, why Berkeley 1964 did not remain an isolated incident, and why the nascent split that appeared there between liberals and radicals became a chasm which has divided American intellectuals more severely even than the issue of Stalinism and Communism in the thirties and forties. What happened to professors at Berkeley happened to liberals and radicals everywhere. And since intellectuals, including professors, played a far larger role in American society in the sixties than in the thirties and forties, this split became far more important than any possible argument among the intellectuals and their associated professors twenty-five years earlier. (One of the differences between the two periods was that so many intellectuals of the sixties, as against the earlier period, were in the universities. Compare the writers, circulation, and influence of Partisan Review with that of the New York Review of Books.)

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