From Boola Boola to Bombs

by Louis Kronenberger
THE CAMPUS SCENE by Calvin B. T. Lee David McKay, $6.95
The word campus today often rivals, in significance and news value, so vital a word as Congress, and is bracketed with all the clamoring key words of our time: Vietnam, violence, relevance, sex, blacks, drugs, power. Long identified with such real names as Albie Booth and Hobie Baker, with such fictional ones as Dink Stover and Amory Blaine, with “Far above Cayuga’s waters” and “We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan,” campus today evokes not dance cards but draft cards, not cherished traditions but charred ones. What once suggested a playground now rather resembles a battlefield. Not that what campus evokes is what it actually embraces: it still has goofv pleasures, it still has growing pains, it still seizes the day much oftener than the administration building. Yet the sixties have so graphically changed college life as to metamorphose the old image of it: and just so, we can turn to a very timelv book, The Campus Scene: 1900-7970. bv Calvin B. T. Lee, which, beyond frequently offering a picturesque or nostalgic look backwards, helps restore perspective as well. Today’s anarchic campus world blots out yesterday’s ancestral one, when a substantial segment of college life stood For upper-class life, and football and foolishness were what college meant to right-thinking alumni. But there were some precedents of today in the Good Old Days, and some analogies as well; and during all seven decades, the period played a strongly characterizing role —enough to make chronology, more than anything else, our soundest means of procedure.
The Good Old Days, which Mr. Lee, acting president at Boston University, dates from 1900 to the end of World War I, abound in such vignettes as sentimental students playing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” on their mandolins. But if such things have a certain period charm, they are often more comic than romantic: for example, the two-foot rule, that 1900s-generation gap between partners in dancing, with some girls aclually carrying a ruler. This, and a decree at the University of Michigan that in yearbook photographs “the figure must not be shown,” will suggest the obstacle race that sex must have been engaged in. It was also a period when arriving freshmen were bearded at the railway station by fraternity rushers, and when liquor was abolished at Stanford after a pie-eyed student went into the wrong fraternity house and was shot as a burglar. It was an era of drinking—a 1903 study at “an eastern university center” revealed that 90 percent of the freshmen drank and 95 percent of the seniors, with 15 percent of the student body drunkards. Ten years later the cops, after a University of Virginia-Georgetown football game, nabbed a hundred drunks, the penalty being ten bucks or sleep in a cell. Football in the early 1900s was played without substitutions, except where a player was too groggy to stand up. Already under attack, the game was abolished at Columbia in 1905 and at Stanford a year later. But even earlier, wealthy alumni were financing stadiums and football coaches. For the silver-spoon student, fraternities and clubs, fun and games were what college meant, and no doubt C was already the recognized “gentleman’s grade.”
Opposed to all this, at places like Nazarenc University in the West, tuition was $20 a semester and room and board $4.25 a week, with a corner room 25 cents extra. Opposed also was such campus “radicalism” as strike sympathizers and protests at Wellesley against accept ing Standard Oil money. Student voices were raised against Victorianism, and modern viewpoints appeared in print (the Seven Arts, the New Republic) and in person (William James, John Dewey, Sigmund Freud) . Mencken said of “the Flapper” in 1915: “She knows exactly what the Wassermann reaction is . . . she is opposed to the double standard . . . she read [the banned Mrs. Warren’s Profession] one rainy Sunday afternoon and found it a mass of platitudes.”
World War I disrupted campus life, calling forth so great a response in student and faculty enlistments as to rouse fears of depopulation. War studies created a revised curriculum—a science course in War Chemicals, an art course in Principles of Camouflage. By 1918 the S.A.T.C. (Student Army Training Corps) was readying, on campus, induction for 200,000 men, and possessed so much authority that professors worried over being court-martialed.
Having disrupted the campus, the war in its aftereffects helped liberate it. The carnival atmosphere of the twenties infected and infiltrated the colleges, but though campus life tried to look sinful, there were probably more shenanigans than carnality, and nothing habit-forming from bathtub gin, only vile hangovers. The East, which produced a raft of college novels—Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Beginning of Wisdom, Percy Marks’s The Plastic Age—was the headquarters for college revels and raccoon-coated monkeyshines. Prohibition was locked out of big-game weekends and proms; at girls’ colleges smoking was rife and chaperones much rarer. But the flasks and flippancies in the East much less set the national pace than violated its norm. The Middle West, as the Mother of Prohibition, saw her college-age children obeying it; “law observance” stood high in a Far West college survey; and, despite tradition, Southern campuses were reported by the Literary Digest to have “given up Bourbon.” As for sin, in a University of Texas student poll of sixteen varieties of it, “sex irregularity” stood first—ahead of stealing and cheating; and the same test, given on five large Northern campuses, produced the same results, except that “sabbath-breaking” was deemed much more sinful in the South.
Almost certainly, in the twenties, a great mass of corn-fed, God-fearing, shakily financed students equated college with education, and education with earnestness. But the spotlight caught the clever, jazz-age minority who had traded education for sophistication, and earnestness for irreverence. About education, they were sometimes right: thus, in literature, while professors clung to Galsworthy & Co., the bright students were deep in Lawrence, Joyce, and Proust. Campus irreverence was a tracing-paper version of such credos as the non-gospel according to Mencken (a key twenties word was debunking) and the new gospel according to Freud. James Wechsler has said that the college generation of the twenties felt that “a man might he of some use to the country until he was 30 years old,” but thereafter joined the oldsters responsible for the period’s evils. This account of the generation gap would seem relevant to today’s; but, as I recall, the students of the twenties flouted rather than protested, saw their fathers as Babbitts and stick-in-themuds, not as capitalists and ratracers, and shook their heads over the situation, not their fists. They were a generation that longed to be disillusioned and, just so, were to the same extent illuded. But, as Mr. Lee concludes, the twenties—and not least with the blase students—were an era of optimism. It was a period, says Mr. Lee, when people “lost their fear of Hell and their interest in Heaven”; and, with Wall Street paved with goldbricks, perhaps came to think they could own the earth. In the fifties, too, the curtain went up on war—this time in Korea, which bred neither campus fervor nor campus protest. Nationally, Korea would give way to McCarthyism, and on campuses, as in suburbs and cities, there ensued an intimidated withdrawal and noninvolvement. The key slogan, Mr. Lee reports, was “Don’t say, don’t write, don’t join”; and there could be a bit of a yellow streak on campuses that were bearing down on Reds. Students were even said to spy on politically dubious professors for the FBI, and certainly professors who pleaded the Fifth were fired. What made history, and perhaps helped unmake McCarthyism, was Harvard’s eventual stand: though it deplored invoking the Fifth Amendment, said President Pusey, that was no “automatic reason for dismissal.”
The true shattering of illusions came in 1929 with the Crash, though it took two or three years to do its worst. By 1932 there were 13 million unemployed in the United States, wages were 60 percent lower than in 1929, and up to 85 percent of male graduates were without jobs. Many college students became part-time janitors and the like; one student became a gigolo, another worked his way through college as a professional welterweight. Vast numbers of students had to live at home, and dormitories went begging; student diversions sank from movies to hikes, from trips into town to trips to the library. Yet the Depression contrived less drastic diversions—card-playing, roller-skating, “radio” dances at 25 cents a couple, and “big” dances in gyms rather than fashionable hotels. Movie money went for Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper, and for Clark Gable, who, by not wearing an underwear top in It Happened One Night, wrecked the underwear-top market. Reading, if purposeful with social-minded students, was elsewhere haphazard. Princeton’s 1935 senior class overwhelmingly voted Kipling’s If its favorite poem, had Noel Coward oust Shakespeare in drama, and magazine artist McClelland Barclay nose out Rembrandt in art. Sex saw parietal rules loosened, not least in Ivy League dorms; at Harvard, however, a student was permitted to entertain two women in his room, but not one.
All told, the dour economics of the thirties affected student life much more than the clamorous politics, though there was much visible, and even vocal, sympathizing with social and radical causes. Late in the thirties pro-Marxist and anti-Fascist sentiment increased and often interfused. Cornell was labeled a Communist center, and Red-baiting, with Hearst in particular diligently harrying professors, became a campus pursuit. Yet Murray Kempton estimates that in the thirties there were at most 15,000 student members of left-wing organizations. But the era and the young-were politically optimistic: a dark, evil totalitarian world had to be crushed, yet from this, a newborn world would emerge. If the twenties were giddy, from a sort of faith in miracles, the thirties weren’t glum, from a sort of ultimate faith in mankind.
As the Crash set the mood of the thirties, the forties were shaped by Pearl Harbor. FDR told students “to stay at their studies until drafted,” but college life immediately changed. House parties and dance bands were canceled; sex leapt overnight into matrimony; curricula offered an exotic bill of fare: Japanese, Hindustani, Swahili, map-reading, ballistics. Though campuses became training camps for almost 300,000 students, girls greatly outnumbered men—among University of Wisconsin freshmen, nine to one. If all this reshaped the plot of campus life, the epilogue crowned the play. The postwar G.I. Bill of Rights gave hundreds of thousands of veterans what they otherwise could never have had, a college education; and veterans in 1946 provided 78 percent of the male students at large universities. The catch was a shortage of classroom space and a vicious shortage of dormitory space. Many married GI’s were told to leave wives and children at home; others crowded into Ouonset huts, trailers, pre-fab houses, or lived thirty-five miles off campus in powder plants. Still others made do in things like converted poultry houses, and two students “lived in an automobile for seven months and studied at night under street lamps.” There were also great shortages of money, with married veterans, to make ends meet, literally giving their blood, at $10 a pint.
Yet couples helped one another, sat for one another, shared with one another, to create a social atmosphere of their own. Most significant, the GI’s were mature and serious-minded, and married GI’s copped the highest grades. Fortune called the Class of 1949 (70 percent veterans) “the soberest, most trained graduating class in U.S. history.” The forties lagged in pranks and jollifications, with combos, folk singers, blue jeans the badges of their socializing. Very anxious to settle down, strongly aiming at well-knit family life and solid community status, the Forty-Niners, Mr. Lee reminds us, begot the undergraduates of today.
With campuses exposed to raids on privacy and professors, it was doubtless fitting that, according to Mr. Lee, panty raids should have been the great student fad. Co-ed dorms were invaded for co-ed undies; obliging girls often tossed panties and bras out of the window, and unamused ones tossed buckets of water. Soon co-ed bras gave way to co-ed birthday suits, and pranksters gave way to the police. Other fashionable inspirations of the fifties were wrecking pianos anti crowding into phone booties (one college claimed thirtyfive occupants) . Student haute couture featured pink button-down shirts and dirty white buckskin shoes; Camus was much read, with existentialism one of the few isms not under a cloud, while at the Princeton Coop “The Liturgy in English, According to the Uses of the Episcopal Church” became a longtime leading item. Campus-wide, as country wide, the fifties might be thought a decade of close-mouthed, weak-kneed, slightly shameful respectability.
The sixties, a kind of Waters of Lethe, all but obliterated the sixty years of campus life preceding them. Yet the decade arrived peacefully enough: about the students of the sixties Clark Kerr, as president at Berkeley, said in 1959: “They are going to do their jobs, they are going to be easy to handle. There aren’t going to be riots. There aren’t going to be revolutions.” In 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected President, and he seemed to speak for youth in speaking against injustice and discrimination, and to set youth a challenge in introducing the Peace Corps. Student movements were helping the Negroes, the poor, the handicapped, the aged, the imprisoned, but with Kennedy’s death an era of faith turned into an era of confrontation. Injustices bred consequences: when four black freshmen could not sit at a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter, the sit-in movement began, caught on, caught fire. Within a year, over 50,000 students participated in some sort of civil-rights protest, and over 3600 demonstrators went to jail. Civil rights invoked civil disobedience, and in Mississippi brought about the murder of three civil-rights workers, two of them Northern college boys. This, coming less than a year after the assassination of the President, set going a far more militant student movement, indeed a sometimes violent one. To chronicle events it is scarcely necessary to do more than mention names: Berkeley, Vietnam over and over, the police again and again, draft cards, Dow Chemical, Dr. Spock, ROTC, SDS, LSD, the National Guard, Canada, Columbia University, Harvard, San Francisco State, Cornell, Eugene McCarthy, the Chicago Democratic Convention, Afro-American Studies, Non-negotiable Demands. Student pronouncements, student disruptions, student uprisings were interfused with acute problems of war, blacks, drugs, but also with problems of the campus, the college, the role of education, the student right to determine it. There were, of course, conservative student organizations, and strong opposition to deliberately mischievous radicals. But one thing student activities certainly were: front-page news; and one thing they almost certainly would be: frontpage news again.
We know so much about recent student unrest that a glance at student unwinding may be of some interest. Professor Robert Gorham Davis saw campus culture as “aural, visual, tactile,” with theater, particularly the theater of cruelty, preferred to fiction. But clearly film outranked theater, whether with Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, or The Yellow Submarine. In music, rock, hi-fi, tape recorders, discotheque, Bob Dylan stood out; in reading matter there was, along with a mushrooming black literature, science fiction, astrology, the occult, and the works of J. R. R, Tolkien and Hermann Hesse. Hair, a key musical, was also a key item in men’s fashions, which ran to bygone garments, bisexual garments, high boots, bare feet, and love beads. Yale became first choice for many girl students, Vassar for a good many men; Jim Crow was all but dead and Joe College dying. Students were concerned with serious and important issues, though often following hopelessly blurred blueprints and befogged ideals.
The product of considerable research, The Campus Scene mixes the essential in themes and movements with the anecdotal and Memory Lane. Mr. Lee has been right, I think, in not insisting on fixed campus patterns or set student traits; campuses could vary as much as eras, and certainly the sixties have knocked out that always convenient, all too glib refrain of Plus fa change. Mr. Lee seems to me sound also in choosing subject matter for color as well as weight—the Academy, after all, is one thing, the campus another. Even though the campus is only the professors’ office whereas it is the students’ home, Mr. Lee has rather slighted the often changing relations of professors with students, or the disclaimer of any, starting with Harvard’s turned-up nose, turn-of-thecentury Barrett Wendell, who told his classes that because he lectured to them was no reason whatever for him to recognize them outside the classroom. Mr. Lee might also have gone into the unhistorical-mindedness of today’s students, who lack not only knowledge of the past but any interest in it, and who regard what others deem analogies with today as mere anachronisms. But The Campus Scene offers a good deal of entertaining and useful information. Confronted with the seventies, Mr. Lee feels that the chief student issues will be war on injustice, on America’s depersonalized living, and on its ever narrowing vocational specializations (54 scientific and technical ones twenty years ago, 900 today). But, whatever the issues, students will almost certainly be on the march, and very likely on the firing line. What today would seem to make campus as vital a word as Congress, and even bring the two face to face, is what may result if the student voice very soon becomes a student vote, many, many millions strong.