- Historic Sites
Back To The Barricades
For the first time in a generation, student activism is on the rise. Do these new protesters have anything like the zeal, the conviction, and the clout of their famous 1960s predecessors?
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
Many undergraduates in the 1960s drifted, virtually anonymous, in a sea of bureaucracy. The postwar boom in higher education, fueled largely by the growth of government-funded scientific research, had bloated public and private institutions almost beyond recognition. Before 1940 no American university could claim a student population greater than 15,000; by 1970 more than 50 were at least that big, while 8 institutions enrolled more than 30,000.
Berkeley’s president, Clark Kerr, admitted that the new “multiversity” could be a “confusing place for the student.” Freshmen accustomed to the doting atmosphere of home and high school quickly learned that their names mattered less than their IBM punch cards. Many students probably agreed with one activist who complained, “They always seem to be wanting to make me into a number. I won’t let them. I have a name and am important enough to be known by it.… I’ ll join any movement that comes along to help me.”
Paradoxically, universities could be all too mindful of their students’ names—and whereabouts, and extra-curricular lives. Anyone who attended college through the mid-1960s will recall the in loco parentis regulations that gave administrators license to police the personal lives of their students, particularly “coeds,” whose comings and goings were subject to a crude double-standard.
Institutions like Michigan State sent semester grade reports directly to the parents of any student under the age of 2.1, reinforcing the message that college kids were, above all, still kids. This procedure was amplified in 1966, when the Selective Service System began revoking the draft deferments of young men with low class standings. Naturally, universities and colleges furnished the Selective Service with necessary grade reports and rankings.
By the mid-1960s, many collegians were feeling oppressed by this double-edged sword of benign neglect and in loco parentis , and events in the South had galvanized a small but vocal-core of activists who, in turn, inspired a far larger number of their peers. “If there was one reason for increased student protest,” recalled a journalist at the University of Utah, “it would probably be the civil rights movement. The movement … convinced many of them that nonviolent demonstrations could be an effective device on the campus. It also served to make them more sensitive of their own civil rights.”
“The American university campus has become a ghetto,” claimed one activist at the University of Florida. “Like all ghettos, it has its managers (the administrators), its Uncle Toms (the intimidated, status-berserk faculty), its raw natural resources processed for outside exploitation and consumption (the students).”
It was this very intellectual connection that compelled Savio’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) to invoke a civil rights cry—“We Shall Overcome”—in its efforts to overturn Berkeley’s ban on political advocacy. In fact, a national survey conducted at the close of the 1964–65 school year revealed that students felt the most pressing issues facing them on campus concerned in loco parentis regulations. They named civil rights as the most important off-campus issue.
Some students also found common cause with victims of “imperialism” in the Third World—particularly, as the decade wore on, in Vietnam. Again, civil rights leaders in the South blazed new intellectual paths in first making this association. “Not wanting to negotiate with the Vietcong is like the power structure in Mississippi not wanting to negotiate with black political activists,” argued a civil rights worker in 1966. Such cries became more common, especially among radical white members of SDS and similar organizations.
ONLY WHEN CASUALTY RATES SOARED DID STUDENT OPINION SWING AGAINST THE WAR.
Still, it wasn’t until the war escalated and casualty rates skyrocketed in 1967 and 1968 that mass student opinion swung decisively against the conflict. The opposition grew just as the Johnson administration ordered induction boards to shift the draft burden onto recent college graduates. Male students who had’ been safely beyond the grasp of the Selective Service now faced uncertain futures. Campus demonstrations declined in mid-1969, when the Nixon administration shifted the draft burden back to younger men (aged 19), instituted an arbitrary (but more evenhanded) lottery system, and sharply reduced the total number of draft calls. College students once again enjoyed limited immunity from the war.
Of course, the point is not that student protesters in the 1960s were unusually selfish or egocentric. Many were heartfelt opponents of segregation and the Vietnam War, while countless others established new beachheads in the women’s rights, environmental, and antipoverty movements. But many other sixties-generation activists might never have developed a political consciousness if not for their growing sense of personal victimization.