Back To The Barricades

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Some 30 years since the storied generation of Vietnam-era student activists began to graduate and disperse into the grown-up world, American universities seem to be emerging once again as a theater for protest and political engagement. Galvanized by debates over free trade and globalization, college students have lent critical muscle to efforts by labor and environmental groups aimed at raising public consciousness about the social costs of an unfettered market.

Some commentators are delighted. Writing last May in the liberal American Prospect, Thomas K. Lowenstein celebrated the accomplishments of several dozen Harvard undergraduates who had just emerged from a nearly three-week sit-in at the university’s eighteenth-century administration building. The protesters, most of whom belonged to the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), were demanding that Harvard pay its custodial and kitchen staffs a “living wage” of $10.25 per hour, well above the $8 many of them were earning. Lowenstein declared, “real leadership has finally emerged on the left. … The students in Massachusetts Hall have found a way to take action, something that seems beyond the Democratic party these days.”

Others aren’t so sure. Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, would “find it a lot easier to respect what they’re doing if they showed some sign of being willing to pay a bit of a price themselves. One of the first demands that the sit-in protesters made was that there should be no academic repercussions for what they’re doing.” Chris Matthews, the famously audible host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” agrees that the PSLM’ s goals merit commendation but also finds today’s student protesters just a little more whiny and self-interested than their parents. “Well, break my heart,” he intoned, dismissing the idea that Harvard’s new activists have made significant personal sacrifices for their cause.

 

Whether one agrees with Lowenstein (yes, the students are doing their parents proud) or with Jacoby and Matthews (no, today’s college protesters just aren’t the real thing), the comparison between now and then is inescapable. Are we in fact on the cusp of a new campus sensibility, one resembling the celebrated wave of student activism that swept universities in the 1960S?

The problem is, many of the assumptions underlying this comparison are flawed. The magnitude of youth engagement in the 19605 has been vastly overstated in the popular media, and many student protesters were less self-sacrificing than public memory would have us believe. In fact, today’s student activists may be greater in number and purer in motive than their parents were before them.

One widespread misconception about the 1960S is the notion that virtually everyone under the age of 30 was marching or demonstrating. The adage about squeaky wheels and grease applies here. Polls suggest that only 2 or 3 percent of students who attended college between 1965 and 1968 considered themselves activists, and only 10 percent participated in demonstrations. The vast majority of baby-boomer collegians spent the decade sitting on the sidelines.

More important, not all youth activists were marching for the same cause. Left-wing groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were loud and flashy, but they were rivaled in size by a quieter yet better-organized conservative adversary, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), an organization spearheaded by William F. Buckley, that claimed a national roster of 60,000 members by the close of the decade. To be sure, members of YAF fell way outside their generation’s mainstream. Group organizers called for the immediate invasion of Cuba, demanded that the United States summarily tear down the Berlin Wall, and derided John F. Kennedy’s inner circle as a “ludicrous array of bearded University of Chicago beatniks.” Still, in many ways YAF was probably closer to the mainstream than was SDS.

Even at the height of political upheaval in the late 1960s, only one of every four college students wanted to boot the ROTC program off campuses; only 2.2 percent supported a ban on defense-industry spending. On Vietnam, the majority of students tended to mimic the ebb and flow of their parents’ faith in America’s Cold War mandate. Most young people supported the war effort until early 1967, shifted to opposition around midyear, swung back to supporting the war in late 1967, until finally—in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive and in light of a steady increase in casualties—the bulk moved firmly into the antiwar camp.

None of this is to say that student unrest wasn’t very real or significant. Roughly 45 million men and women belonged to the “sixties generation”—those who were born between 1942. and 1954—and by the decade’s close, one of every three Americans between 18 and 22 years old was attending at least some form of post-secondary schooling. This means that upward of 10 million young people lived on college campuses through-out the decade. Those who participated in political demonstrations could have numbered in the millions; the 2. or 3 percent who described themselves as activists, in the hundreds of thousands. These are not inconsiderable figures.