The Road to Who We Are

Sondra Farganis

In being invited to write an essay for Academic Questions on the fiftieth anniversary of 1968, I was given free and full range to reflect upon what the journal’s editors define as “the dawn of the counterculture.” I have interpreted this to mean: how did the sixties usher in the society we have become? The stated assumption is that each contributor to this special section would be looking back on some fifty years of tumultuous times as an observer or an actor or both. The invitation presumed, quite correctly, that my perspective would be that of a credentialed social scientist with a worldview to the left of the journal, but with assurances from John Agresto, who recommended me for this assignment, that I value academic freedom. It was known that I am an academic, but also an advocate and participant in the politics of that time, in the civil rights movement, in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and in efforts linked to the restructuring of the academy. I accepted the invitation owing to the respect I have for the core of Academic Questions and my friendship with John Agresto. If I do best in life as a teacher, I should then do very well in this company. Let’s see.

There are several seminal works I return to when I am called upon to think, teach, and write about issues involving the dialectic of thought and action.

The theorists who most affected my thinking about the sixties were Isaiah Berlin, especially his Four Essays on Liberty (1969), and Herbert Marcuse, in particular his One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964), and his essay on “Repressive Tolerance” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (1965), along with that volume’s superb essays by Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore Jr.

It is not so much that these readings helped me to think about the idea of liberty (which they did), but that they allowed me to assess a concrete historical moment through the prism of political theorizing from different points on the spectrum. The sixties for me were a laboratory of reading, thinking, and acting out, an engagement not only with the classics of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, but also with modern liberalism, Marxism, and critical theory.

Through an unanticipated moment in my personal life, I landed at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in 1959, when its graduate programs had some extraordinary thinkers who had moved in and out of the academy and government service, and had lived through experiences of war and peace. Their gift to me and other students was to help us explore the tension between theory and practice, and in that exploration raise questions about the acceptable and unacceptable consequences of taking political action in certain historical circumstances. At that time the NSSR faculty also included Straussians, who showed us the importance of deep, deep reading.

I learned that I had to grapple with how I taught what I taught, how I had to bracket my political life and my academic life as best I could, recognizing that this might pose challenges to each sphere.

For example, there is an inherent aspect of political action that draws upon reading and writing to further political engagement. I did not see that—and still do not—as my role as a teacher. Rather, I saw that role as governed by critical thinking with little regard to whether such thinking brought one closer to making political decisions. All positions raised in my classroom were subject to examination, where students were encouraged to ask questions, make assertions, and express reservations about the ideas under discussion. I regret not having had the opportunity to teach Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I regard as a must for those interested in post-1960s developments in the academy. I am certain I would have given it the kind of respect I have given to Berlin and Marcuse.

My goal in the classroom was to teach the best that has been thought and said, regardless of the thinker’s political viewpoint and objectives, and to be probing and methodical in my approach. Adhering to this stance isn’t easy in quiet times; in tumultuous times such as 1968 it was even harder.

Nineteen sixty-eight was an iconic year, if that is the correct term to use. It was an admixture of events: the war in Vietnam and its progressions and failures; the questioning and assessing of that war; the proliferation of racial struggles, defeats, and successes; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy some five years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the riots in the ghettos; the stirrings of another phase of the women’s movement. America’s colleges and universities played a significant role in the events of that year and media coverage, especially of the elite campuses, made the nation sit up and take notice. The draft resistance movement was another major event and the cry of “Hell, no! We won’t go!” was significant. Opposition to the Vietnam War during the 1960s ignited a range of other movements, the style and tactics of which has had a shelf life that persists on campuses today.

I was teaching at Brooklyn College in 1968, having returned in 1966 from five years of graduate study in Australia after completing a master’s in political science at The New School. It seemed then, as now, that every reading assignment could be unpacked and deconstructed—to use a new discourse. Every conflict in the streets, on the campuses, and in the country at large played into and out of many academic disciplines. Even then one sensed that to be in the academy—to be in a classroom—was against the background of the best and worst of times. It also became a time in which one never knew for sure if one’s way to the classroom would be blocked—and what to do then? The country witnessed the rise of student activism that even just a few years earlier we had not anticipated. In short, and especially if one were in the social sciences or parts of the humanities, there was no real way to avoid or ignore the contentious environment that suddenly polarized the halls of academe.

So 1968 shook us to our very roots. One had friends and enemies where previously one had colleagues. I was younger than most members of my department and more likely to raise questions about the direction in which the college was moving. The battle lines were drawn, for example, on the issue of open enrollment. But even the books one chose to teach were often out of the mainstream of political science, although I argued then, and still adhere to this argument, that I selected serious texts that built on mainstream work that students had taken in other classes.

Certainly, Berlin was well within the liberal tradition, although there are some serious complexities in laying out “freedom from” and “freedom to,” or, in Berlin’s own words, “negative freedom” and “positive freedom.” In my October 1977 Ethics essay, “Liberty: Two Perspectives on the Women’s Movement,” I dealt with the two forms of liberty Berlin discussed. Allow me to quote my paraphrase of Berlin: Negative freedom “concerns the areas in which individuals are to be left to do what they want”; positive freedom “focuses upon who or what agent controls what an individual may do or be.”1 Berlin sees the first as representative of liberalism and the second as representative of Hegelian Marxism. “Negative freedom can be seen as making the argument that no one may ‘interfere with my activity.’ Were this to happen it would be coerced and would interfere with my liberty, preventing me from pursuing goals I had chosen.”2 Positive freedom means the freedom to choose how to live one’s life—to assess oneself as a rational being able to make rational choices. The demarcation is not clear, critics point out, but Berlin’s distinction between the two types of freedom is a gift to the classroom and a way to generate discussion.

Berlin’s work has always mattered to me, and was foundational to my own understanding of feminism, as laid out in my Ethics essay. I cherish the pedagogical value of looking at a problem (here freedom) from several distinct sides and investigating the implications of the arguments. I fear as teachers we do not use this approach often enough. The more politicized the academy becomes, and the greater the use of texts sharply linked to specific viewpoints and even to direct political action, the more reverence I have for modern and classic texts that strive for a balanced presentation. Increasingly, I found that academics do not want to use materials with which they have serious or even petty disagreements, serious in that they are regarded as ideologically questionable or, as one colleague once put it, “on the wrong side of history.” These colleagues want to use materials with which they agree, which they feel their colleagues and students will not find offensive, which they believe will lead to some form of “social justice.”

This violates academic freedom; it is the easy road rather than the rigorously confrontational road.

Unlike Berlin, Marcuse was more of a challenge to traditional political science. Marcuse brought the legacy of European Marxism to the modernity of America and through that filter a sharp and sophisticated critique of liberalism. He gave an erudite reading to that critique and presented it, often with the force of his personality, to the new social movements—Black Power colonialism abroad, youth at home, the emerging counterculture, the women’s movement—all potential agents of radical change. He was erudite and complex. Many older colleagues found him too radical and too repressive of liberal ideas and liberal freedoms, and they were not wrong. Nonetheless, there is no reason why his writings cannot be read and confronted precisely as challenges to liberal ideas. Against the backdrop of the sixties, Marcuse’s writings force us to consider whether there really is a free marketplace of ideas. The point of his essay “Repressive Tolerance” is that technology co-opts dissent in ways we most often do not see, and that affluence buys off oppositional thought with material goods.

In the present historical moment, even more so than in the sixties, that essay raises issues of toleration: What is it? When is it a liberal virtue? And shouldn’t there be a questioning of its status in liberal thinking? Are there some ideas that should not be tolerated? Is it possible that we are tolerating only ideas that do not threaten the powers that be?

Is there a road from this essay to “political correctness”? My experience is that in many colleges and universities there is a closing off of works that have the potential to trouble, annoy, and harm some people. Oftentimes this shutting down is done out of a sense of decency, and therefore many well-intentioned academics are so committed to the idea of inclusion that they leave out—might I say censor?—“words that wound,” to the great disadvantage of their students and readers. Marcuse was tougher than that; his idea of repression has to be seen in the context of a search for a radical but more deeply moral human life, not in the context of simplistic censorship.

My point is that Marcuse is worth taking seriously even if one disagrees with his ideas. And again: the use of shared texts, reading Berlin and Marcuse together, for example, puts order into the academy, the class, the seminar, and the reading group, and prevents any one political position from controlling discourse. I may be overselling this approach, but it seems to me a method for shoring up, if not guaranteeing, academic freedom in the classroom.

So to return to my original question, how did 1968 and the sixties usher in the society we have become? If I take 1968 to be a turning point, it was a year when activists like me understood that a lot of good might come out of political activism, to wit, the opening of avenues for those previously denied a place at the table—women, people of color, gays, lesbians, those with disabilities. I commend the opening up of the sixties, but I detest the closing down of very tough, potentially offensive readings, films, ideas, and discussions. That, too, started in the late sixties and has grown over the following decades into a deleterious and regrettable force.

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