Fifty years of the Sixties

Carol Iannone

The sixties. The counterculture. The peace movement, the sexual revolution, the revolt against authority, the repudiation of tradition, the campus upheavals, the miniskirt. When did it all begin? In 1960, at the start of the decade? Hardly. In 1962, with the publication of the Port Huron Statement, which signified the reemergence of left-wing activism after a period of quiescence? Or maybe 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the sense on the part of some that an Arthurian moment had passed. Or 1964–1965, with the so-called Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. Or was it even earlier than all of these, in the hipster era of Allen Ginsberg, Greenwich Village, the folk music revival, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)? This had its benign embodiment even in popular culture in the television comedy series, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959–1963), with its memorable, proto-beatnik character, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver), who, if anyone in earshot uttered the word “work,” would exclaim, “Work!” in horror—an early revolt against bourgeois demands.

It could be said that the sixties started in the fifties, and if so, officially ended in the seventies, which Tom Wolfe designated the Me Decade, the end of all the supposed selfless brotherhood and flower child idealism of the “Movement,” as the whole collection of causes came to be called. It could also be argued that the sixties never ended, since many of the problems we face today can be traced back to that time.

At any rate, what had been simmering through the years boiled over in 1968, not only in America and on the American campus, but in Europe as well. That year saw increasing opposition to the expansion of the Vietnam War and the draft under JFK’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, which led to his decision not to run for a second full term. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to mark a turn in the civil rights movement away from peaceful efforts to gain political equality for blacks toward the ascendancy of radical and violent black power. Incredibly, Robert F. Kennedy was also assassinated that year during his campaign for the nomination of the Democratic Party, and violent protests marked the party’s presidential convention in Chicago in August. Moreover, what could be seen as the seminal student protest of the era took place at Columbia University in New York City in the spring of 1968, in which the campus was paralyzed, classes disrupted, and buildings occupied and trashed for weeks, until the administration called in the police, who roughly put an end to it.

The ostensible reasons for the Columbia uprising were the Vietnam War and the purportedly racist policies of the Columbia administration, but the underlying revolt was wider than that—against belief in America as a force for good in the world, against authority and hierarchy in general, against traditional education. Widespread and automatic anti-Americanism, the use of disruption and protest and even violence to gain attention for whatever cause or grievance, and the indictment of authority on campus and the ascendancy of student power, all had roots back then. It took time for all these aspects to converge in changing campus life and curricula nationwide. During long periods of quiet, protest gains were consolidated through the capitulation to radical demands and the introduction of feminism, postmodernism, and the various “studies” that upended the standards and strictures of scholarship guided by reason, evidence, and argument, and subsequently spread throughout the disciplines. After all, it wasn’t until 1987 that what was to become the National Association of Scholars was formed to oppose such developments. (Ironically, one of the few colleges to preserve its long-established core curriculum, “Contemporary Civilization,” is Columbia.)

But what we see now definitely started then. According to “Explaining the Counterculture,” Paul Hollander’s contribution to our special feature in this issue, “Now on Then: The Fiftieth Anniversary of 1968,” the proliferation of countercultural trends through the decades can account for Donald J. Trump’s unlikely elevation to the Oval Office.

Our feature does not claim to be a historical recounting of events of that time but rather offers five takes on how it looks today to people looking back. In addition to Hollander’s detached and penetrating sociological analysis, we have Mark Bauerlein’s “I’m Watching Myself,” which traces our current selfie-absorption, sans the self-reflection, to Norman Mailer’s lengthy “nonfiction novel,” The Armies of the Night, published in 1968 and recounting the author’s participation in the antiwar March on the Pentagon a year earlier. In “The Road to Who We Are,” Sondra Farganis remembers how she enjoyed the broadening to new ideas and writers in college teaching, but then laments the subsequent narrowing of the range of permissible thought. William Shapiro examines his own considerable activism in “The Cure That Ailed Us,” and Jeff Zorn vividly presents his in “Cambridge, 1968.”

Yes, the counterculture has shaped the world we live in today, but, tellingly, at its half-century mark, is showing alarming cracks and contradictions. How about the outbreak of sexual harassment and assault accusations that arose against men in high positions in various professions earlier this year and is still ongoing as of this writing? Whether all of these accusations are fully justified is a separate question. The range of objectionable behaviors seems to go from clumsy remarks all the way up to rape, and the span of time being reexamined for misbehavior is none other than the very fifty years of countercultural ascendancy. New accusations, decades old, are surfacing daily against one prominent man after another, sometimes anonymously. “Men are living as Jews in Germany,” one man remarked.

Leaving all that aside, however, can we not see that much of this turmoil comes from the repudiation of traditional manners and morals, together with the assertions of feminism, which, modeled on the civil rights movement, advances the idea that there are no differences between men and women? Following thereupon comes the thoroughgoing condemnation of gentlemanly conduct as an anachronism redolent of the stifling and life-denying mechanisms of patriarchy. (Interestingly, the UK has recently been considering the idea of separate railroad cars for women, evidently because so much harassment happens on trains. This reminds me that there was once a Ladies’ Pavilion at the edge of Central Park to shelter women waiting for the trolleys. It is an architectural gem and has been relocated within the park.)

According to “Exposure,” an article by Dana Goodyear in the January 8, 2018, New Yorker, part of the problem in the entertainment industry, ground zero for the recent wave of revelations of male misconduct, is that teams of writers use obscene language in their creative sessions as they plan and write shows.1 That is, in order to produce the ever-expanding filth and perversity in our popular culture, the creators have to be able to speak profanity and indulge obscene and perverse ideas aloud in their writing sessions.

Well, it’s logical in a way, isn’t it? That’s why the California Supreme Court decided in favor of the network in 2006, on the grounds of “creative necessity,” when a woman sued for harassment because her job on the staff of Friends in 1999 was to take notes in such obscenity-laden brainstorming sessions. That was then; in the current climate, Goodyear warns, that legal principle of “creative necessity” may no longer hold. In another instance, a woman writer was explaining a sex scene to an executive and he remarked that it was exciting him, in more tangible terms. This is proffered as an indignity that today might be termed sexual abuse. On his part, of course.

Here we meet the clash of contradictions in modernity—on the one hand, the demand for absolute artistic freedom resulting in the increasingly gross and graphic depictions in art and popular culture galloping through the twentieth century and into the present, along with the proliferation of all forms of profanity (cheered on by our misguided libertarian friends), and, on the other hand, the demand of feminists that women be seen as the same as men—in both vices and virtues. With the subsequent discovery that they are not, the rediscovered difference is classified not as the result of human nature requiring cultivation but of workplace “discrimination” necessitating legal intervention.

And what about the mixed messages sent out by female comics assiduously trying to be as raunchy as the men, such as Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Amy Schumer? I suffered through Schumer’s film, Trainwreck, because a female friend assured me that it was the must-see movie of the summer of 2015. As we sat stupefied at its clumsy offensiveness, I suddenly realized that not only was it offensive, it wasn’t even funny. Plato warns that comedy can make us laugh at base things, but this was base without any relief of laughter. A particularly excruciating scene involved the Amy character insisting that her bedmate “talk dirty” during sex. The scene went on for what seemed minutes as the hapless fellow humiliated himself with one lame and hopeless utterance after another, utterances that were neither amusing in themselves nor effective as comments on the ridiculousness of the situation, but simply embarrassing. My friend, although a feminist sympathizer, entirely agreed with me, adding that the film was, aside from being thoroughly unfunny, ugly and mean-spirited as well.

So why did the film receive all that positive buzz and favorable critical response that prompted my friend to think it a must-see? Well, American audiences and critics have certainly been trained to accept baseness and cruelty in comedy, and, guided by feminism, our benighted culture has now been instructed to see tasteless humor from women as some kind of advance in “equality.”

Thus it has been with all the breakdown in custom and ceremony, to use Yeats’s words, cheered on as “progress” in our time. Until someone sees its offensiveness and calls in the law.

Be all that as it may, in one way or another, the rest of this issue of AQ illustrates the ongoing legacy of 1968. In “Reunifying History in the Age of Fracture,” an assessment of history education at the secondary level, Wilfred M. McClay argues that we have lost sight of the primary purpose of secondary school education in American history, which should be “a rite of civic membership, an act of inculcation and formation, a way in which the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans.” How fitting that this article is itself adapted from a keynote address presented at “Securing Liberty: Rebuilding American Education in an Era of Illiberal Learning,” the National Association of Scholars’s thirtieth anniversary conference, which took place in January 2017 in Oklahoma City and launched a new report by then NAS director of communications David Randall (now director of research), Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. The launch of a second report by David Randall, Beach Books 2016–2017: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? was the occasion for Wight Martindale Jr.’s talk, “The Core As Art,” at the First Things offices in Manhattan in May 2017.

Douglas Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, explains “How Multiple-Choice Tests and Machine-Graded Essays Undermine Learning,” and thereby evokes what real education should entail. “The University of Texas ‘Rape Survey’: A Case Study of Politicized Social Science,” by David F. Prindle, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, gives an intricate up-close view as to how some statistics involving rape are manufactured, and adds to previous exposés of the production of exaggerated and distorted statistics by KC Johnson, Heather Mac Donald, and others. Robert Weissberg’s “The Futility of Ideological Affirmative Action” challenges the idea that deliberately hiring conservatives will finally bring some “viewpoint diversity” to campus.

Our poem, “To His Coy Coauthor,” with apologies to Andrew Marvell, by Robert Maranto, turns strategies for seduction into strategies for production—intellectual production, that is.

Bruce Bawer reviews David Horowitz’s The Left in the University, and highlights its author as an underrated hero, once a red diaper baby and fervent man of the New Left, long since reformed and working to undo the damage; and new contributor Michael McDonald dethrones a prestigious Yale University Press publication, the twelve-hundred-page Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, by Anthony Kronman.

Jane S. Shaw reviews Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities, in which Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro attempt to show how the Gradgrindian calculations of economists are badly in need of the larger human dimension that literature provides. This book joins other recent efforts to show the relevance of the humanities for our increasingly technocratic age. (See, for example, “The Liberal Arts Are Marketable,” a review by Michael S. Roth of A Practical Education, by Randall Stross, and You Can Do Anything, by George Anders, in the September 4, 2017, Wall Street Journal.)

Considering Charles Dorn’s A New History of Higher Education in America, Marcus Sheffield, professor of English at Southern Adventist University, sees “a precipitous decline into nonreason” on the part of students today, and Peter Wood takes up his sickle again to mow through a slew of books on higher education in Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.

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