There’s a retrospective piece in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that brings to mind some of the less pleasant memories of my college years, and again demarcates 1968 as the Great Divide in American higher education. For me, as I suspect for many other NAS members as well, this was the tragic breakpoint in the history of American higher education: things would never be the same, and had changed permanently and immeasurably for the worse. As the many comments illustrate, those ideological battles are far from finished, and a number of writers continue to defend the protesters as altruists who envisaged a better world, shaking the rest of us loose from our somnolent complacency.
It’s hard to describe the utter surrealism of those fevered times to anyone who missed them. Really, after all of the violence, vandalism and thuggery which took place at Columbia during the spring of 1968 at the hands of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), many of the university’s faculty were nevertheless finally outraged by: the administration’s decision to call in the police and quell the rioting protesters! I recommend that you read this contemporary appraisal written by Nathan Glazer in 1969. It has aged very well, and actually manages to capture the Zeitgeist while also separating the forest from the trees. The faculty of affected elite universities, as Glazer notes, did not cover themselves with glory, and rather supinely, sometimes eagerly, handed the academy over to ideologues. Smart people, as George Orwell, Raymond Aron, Paul Hollander and Robert Conquest have sought to teach us, sometimes seem incapable of making of the most obvious practical judgments and are remarkably adept at self-deception. Those qualities were certainly ascendant in the bad old days of springtime, 1968. Read and weep.