Too Much and Too Little: Campus Demonstrations in the 1960s and Today

J. Martin Rochester

The 1960s saw the first big wave of student activism after World War II. I can vividly recall the series of demonstrations that engulfed Syracuse University when I was a newly arrived graduate student in 1966. It was hard not to get swept up in the turmoil, whether one was a radical or simply a bystander. Over the past couple years, on college campuses from Amherst to Mizzou to Berkeley, lots of folks from every category of “marginalized” persons imaginable, along with nonmarginalized fellow travelers, could be found engaging in protests.1

Then, as now, few students on either side of the barricades protested the cancellation of final exams. But whereas contemporary students invoke “traumatization” as the basis for being spared finals, at Syracuse the unrest itself was enough to force closure of the university, making test administration impossible.

There are similarities between that generation of protesters and the present generation, but also important differences. These lay not so much in the degree of violence or shrillness of voice but in (1) the sources of discontent, or lack thereof, and (2) the contemporary sense of entitlement, both of which are connected to the emergence of political correctness, which had not yet taken root in the 1960s.

Sources of Discontent

The 1960s-era demonstrations certainly could be quite violent: recall the scenes from the movie Born on the Fourth of July depicting an incendiary altercation with police on the main quad at Syracuse in 1970. But those clashes could be understood as reactions to the vilest forms of racism and to the Vietnam War. Although legitimate concerns about racial and social issues remain, today we live in a far more inclusive society, and no major war affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Despite this unprecedented cultural diversity on campus, and the scant number of college students ending up in war zones, academia has become the site of a growing grievance industry.

Racial tension has been the main flashpoint at Yale, Princeton, and many other universities, primarily owing to post-Ferguson sensibilities that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. Ferguson (which is less than one mile from my own university) exposed the tension that continues to exacerbate race relations, notwithstanding the extraordinary progress the nation has made in combatting racism over the past half-century. On almost every objective measure conditions for blacks and other minorities have improved, while perceptions of decline have only increased, as if in inverse proportion.

Chanting about white oppression, white supremacy, and white privilege in the 1960s congrued with a time not far removed from the infamous Jim Crow era. But today such language seems misplaced, or at least over-the-top. After all, not only are Asians the single most educationally and economically successful racial or ethnic group in America, we take it for granted that a black man has occupied the highest office in the land for the past eight years, having been elected twice by comfortable majorities; that two of the last four U.S. secretaries of state are black, having been appointed by a president of a party often labeled racist (the same party that had a black man as a serious contender for presidential nomination in 2012 and 2016); and that blacks have become CEOs of such iconic American corporations as American Express, Time-Warner, Aetna, Merck, and Xerox. Black History Month, initiated in 1976, has proved effective: according to one recent survey of U.S. high school students, the three most famous Americans (other than presidents and their wives) are Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman.2 King and Tubman will soon appear on U.S. currency, along with major feminist figures.3

The country, indeed, has come a long way since the 1960s. While John F. Kennedy had to wonder if the electorate was ready for a Catholic president in 1960, a 2015 Gallup poll showed that over 90 percent of the public is willing to vote not only for a Catholic presidential candidate but also one who was black, Hispanic, Jewish, or female. That same poll, reflecting the seismic change in acceptance of LGBT rights (the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision on same-sex marriage),4 revealed that three quarters of Americans are prepared to vote for a gay or lesbian president.

The Left has succeeded so well in promoting a cultural shift and achieving policy victories, mainly through executive and judicial fiat from Washington, that in 2015 the New York Times noted that we have just witnessed “a Liberal Spring: the moment when deeply divisive and consuming questions of race, sexuality and broadened access to health care were settled in quick succession, and social tolerance was cemented as a cornerstone of American public life.”5 And yet, that moment coincided with an explosion of campus protests across the country.

What accounts for the current sense of rage and frustration on campus? The explanation seems to be the fallout from the “revolution of rising expectations” that political scientist Ted Robert Gurr and others have studied.6 One scholar notes that “if people have no reason to expect or hope for more than they can achieve, they will be less discontented with what they have.”7 Once gains begin to be made, however, the calculus changes from resignation to yearning and clamoring for more. As irrational as the recent campus “intifada” might seem, it stems from “relative deprivation,” defined as “perceived discrepancy between value expectations and value capabilities.”8 Gurr states that “value expectations are defined with reference to justifiable value positions, meaning what [people] believe they are entitled to get or maintain, not merely what they faintly hope to attain” (emphasis added).9 Today’s discontent stems not from oppression, but from entitlement.

Sense of Entitlement

This inflated sense of entitlement emboldens student protesters to make demands that go far beyond anything conceivable in the past. There is a take-no-prisoners quality to the current uprising. For example, almost no one in the 1960s at Princeton would have dared suggest the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and other corners of the campus. Few would have insisted on mandatory cultural competency training for students and staff alike in the manner of the political reeducation camps of Mao Zedong and Pol Pot. And fewer still would have had the chutzpah to dictate changes in faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion guidelines that rendered merit a secondary criterion.

As political correctness took hold in the 1970s and became ensconced on and off campus, young people became more convinced than ever of the rightness of their cause. Mario Salvo’s Berkeley Free Speech Movement degenerated into restrictive campus speech codes in the 1980s and 1990s, morphing into the university as police state by the new millennium. Censoring has replaced censuring, and “hurtful” comments have replaced hateful comments as the mark of unacceptable behavior. The same collegians uttering obscenities at university officials and their peers claim a right not to be “offended” by even the slightest counter to their worldviews, their psyches so fragile they require “trigger warnings” for any idea that might deny them a “safe space.” As one observer commented, “Yesterday’s student activists wanted to be treated like adults. Today’s want to be treated like children.”10

There are now limits on free speech so outrageous they leave one almost speechless, as epitomized by the note on University of California president Janet Napolitano’s website instructing faculty to avoid uttering such “microagressions” as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”11 The president of Emory went so far as to sympathize with students who felt “endangered” by “Vote Trump in 2016” chalk markings on sidewalks, leading to investigations of those responsible for such epithets.12 A University of Houston student government official was suspended for daring to say that “all lives matter.”13 So much for “courageous conversations.”14

In the 1960s, students challenged authority structures. But today the authority structures are so mired in political correctness that they themselves are enablers of protest. University administrators tend to cave into protesters’ demands partly because their faculties have helped cultivate them through a curriculum of victimization studies in the humanities and social sciences. Substantial empirical evidence supports the proposition that on most campuses a liberal hegemony privileges leftist thought, and the very departments that preach the most about “diversity” lack the most important type for higher education—intellectual diversity.15 In the 1960s there were more than a few Samuel Huntingtons and Harvey Mansfields at Harvard and elsewhere who could offer alternative voices and serve as a brake on radical protests. But how many such conservative professors would be hired today?

There are few laws of politics with the certainty of the laws of physics. One that comes close is the saw attributed to Churchill that “if you are young and are not a socialist, you do not have a heart,” i.e., young people tend to lean leftward and are forever protesting. The question remains whether today’s adults will perform the moderating role they have traditionally played in the past.

The Future of Campus Protests

Social media are only intensifying the passions fueling the latest round of protests and adding to the ranks of the “sanctimonious bullies”16 leading the demonstrations. Protesters may have overplayed their hand this time, however, as there has been pushback even among liberals over the excesses of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and safe spaces that are fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a liberal education.17 Especially hopeful is the recent letter by the University of Chicago dean of students, Jay Ellison (supported by President Robert Zimmer) informing incoming freshmen that academic freedom and vigorous debate override safe spaces and other such speech constraints.18 It remains to be seen if other universities will follow Chicago’s lead.19

If universities do not police themselves, keeping true to their central mission of developing and disseminating knowledge—as opposed to merely raising hell—then state legislatures and alumni boards may have to intrude into the affairs of public and private institutions. That would be unfortunate, but universities would only have themselves to blame. Faculty may complain about outsiders usurping their prerogatives and interfering with university governance, but they doth protest too much—and do too little.

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