What Can We Learn from the Radical Campuses of 1968?
The Struggle in the Universities was Never a Simple Conflict of Generations
Universities were the most obviously politicized sites of generational identity in the long year of 1968. Some campuses—Berkeley in California, Nanterre in Paris, Essex in Britain or the Free University in Berlin—became bywords for political radicalism. The occupation of university buildings was common and became associated with wider protests that were not directly linked to university matters. “Teach-ins” on matters of political significance, the Vietnam War in particular, were common. Some proposed the end of examinations or the abolition of the distinction between academics and students. In the United States, students demanded, and sometimes established for themselves, new courses on topics such as black studies. At Birmingham in England a “Free University” offered courses on, among other things, “workers’ control, psychedelia and the theory and practice of counter-institutions.” In London, an “anti-university” offered for a time courses by thinkers such as the psychologist R.D. Laing.
The growth of graduate studies fostered radicalism in universities. It created a cadre of students who remained in place for long enough to establish political movements. The Teaching Assistants Association was formed at the University of Wisconsin in 1966 to represent graduate students who earned money teaching, and soon linked the material dissatisfactions of its members to wider questions relating to race and Vietnam. The lives of graduate students were not interrupted by the inconvenient obligation to sit exams. The leisurely pace of life was captured by the jibe in John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp (published in 1978 and set mainly in the 1960s) that “gradual school was where students gradually realize that they do not want to go to school anymore.”
Graduate study expanded sharply in the 1960s. This was particularly notable in the United States—partly because of the institutionalization of research and partly because attending graduate school became a means to avoid being sent to Vietnam. The idea of graduate education, like most American educational innovations, spread to Britain and Europe. A lawyer at the trial of student activists—largely Americans undertaking postgraduate courses—who had stormed the administrative building at London University remarked briskly that “doctorates are two a penny in the United States.”
Who were students against? Sometimes there was a mood of bitter hostility to teachers who were seen as authoritarian or complicit in some wider power structure. Equally professors were sometimes hostile to student activists whom they saw as a threat to the qualities—order, tranquility, reasoned debate—that they regarded as essential to university life. Though students often denounced their enemies as “fascists,” their bitterest critics were often Jewish professors—Alexander Gerschenkron, Raymond Aron, Theodor Adorno—who were old enough to have personal memories of Nazism.
However, the struggle in the universities was never a simple conflict of generations and never completely divided teachers from students. Some academics maintained good relations with their students in 68, or even presented themselves as neutral figures in a struggle between students and “the university”—the rise of the professional academic administrator sometimes gave students and teachers a common enemy.
During the occupation of Columbia University in 1968, students marked their political affiliations with various colored armbands, but members of the faculty wore white bands. Very few professors were either completely for or completely against the student protests, and some took unexpected stands. The historians Rodney Hilton and John Saville, both ex-Communists in their fifties, acted as intermediaries between protesting students and the university authorities at Birmingham and Hull. René Rémond, a senior historian of relatively conservative views at Nanterre, later remarked that he was a soixante-huitard himself in a way because he welcomed the chance to reform his university.
Sometimes there was sympathy between student radicals and professors. The sinologist and historian of science Joseph Needham was master of one of the most conservative colleges in Cambridge but also belonged to Socialists in Higher Education, whose members sought “a critical destabilization of the system.” Antonio Negri—born in 1933 and a professor of sociology at Bologna—was a leader of the radical Marxist Lotta Continua. He was later prosecuted for having inspired terrorist acts by the Red Brigades, and the Italian authorities denounced him as the most prominent of the “bad masters”—a term that implies that some Italian students listened to their professors too assiduously.
Many academics led double lives that straddled the frontier between academic authority and student rebellion. Jonah Raskin spent some of his nights in 1968 participating in the student occupation of Columbia University but by day he commuted to Stony Brook University to teach his own classes. He was Dr. Raskin to his students, Jonah to his colleagues and “Jomo” to readers of his articles in the underground press.
In any case, the expansion of higher education in the post-war period had blurred the boundaries between teachers and students. This was in part because university expansion brought an increase in the proportion of young university teachers. Even among academics of roughly the same age there were some sharp divisions, rooted partly in how fast they had risen up the academic ladder. Barry Supple (born in 1929) was pro-vice chancellor of Sussex University in 1968 and responsible for containing much of the student revolt. Stuart Hall, three years younger than Supple, was in a more junior position and widely regarded as the most important academic to support the British student protests.“Very few professors were either completely for or completely against the student protests, and some took unexpected stands.”
In the United States, the profession was divided into those who did and those who did not enjoy permanent tenure. In France, Germany and Italy, junior academics—often on temporary contracts—were expected to display ostentatious deference to the professors who controlled their careers. The number of these junior academics increased as universities expanded in the 1960s, and the increase was, of course, sharpest in those subjects, such as sociology, that grew fastest. 68 was sometimes as much a rebellion of assistants against professors as it was of students against their teachers.
Those who opposed student protest often presented it as a movement of savage philistinism—one that threatened scholarship itself as well as academic authority. The desacralization of the book was an important part of 68. Guido Viale, a charismatic figure among leftist students in Turin, remarked that books were “as bad as professors.” The belief that university libraries might be threatened by disorder obsessed some academics—David Landes at Harvard said that he would fire on students if they attacked the library.
However, radical students often had a touching attachment to the written word. Members in a Danish commune admitted that books were the one form of private property that they found it hard to renounce. During his years as university dropout, political activist and leader of a London squat, Phil Cohen often found solace in the reading room of the British Museum and he subtitled his memoirs The Radical Bibliophile. Seeking potential recruits to Students for a Democratic Society, George Brosi at Carleton College in Minnesota checked library records because he knew that readers of certain books were likely to have left-wing sympathies. Access to libraries was itself sometimes a demand in 68. Students at Trento called for an “American-style library . . . maximum development of the man/book relation—no intermediary—all the books on the wall and within hand reach.”
Academics sometimes felt an odd sense of renewal in 68. Didier Anzieu at Nanterre wrote: “My students sensed that I was preoccupied not so much with them as with the machine. They were bored of my boredom and I was bored of theirs. For the first time that year [during the uprising of May 1968] the University interested me again.” Even Barry Supple, who defended order at Sussex University, admitted that he derived a frisson of excitement from the drama that he had lived through.
For all the lurid rhetoric, much of what students wanted in 68 could be accommodated by universities. Indeed student protests were often followed by an unexpected burst of consensus. At Nanterre student radicals joined commissions to discuss how teaching might be changed. Even the most dramatic innovations of 68 yielded quite conventional results. Edgar Faure, the wily centrist politician who became minister of education after the May events in France, helped create a new campus at Vincennes—housed in prefabricated buildings and opened in 1969. The new campus provided an intellectual home for radical thinkers—notably Michel Foucault—and took students who lacked conventional qualifications. As Faure probably anticipated, in the long term even Vincennes calmed down—partly because its relatively old, working-class students sometimes turned out to have rather conventional expectations of education.
Some left universities during or after the protests of 68—to take jobs in factories, become full-time militants or even go underground as urban guerrillas—but a surprisingly large number stayed in, or returned to, education. In 2006 Tom Hayden finally published the masters’ dissertation which he had begun in the early 1960s. Guido Viale, who had called for the destruction of books in 1968, also became a sociologist. A study of American radical activists from the 1960s found that 30 years later 17 per cent of the sample had become professors.
Dick Flacks—who had himself been a member of Students for a Democratic Society before becoming an academic sociologist who both sympathized with and studied the radicals of the late 1960s—summed things up: “The Academy was one of the few institutional settings where former student activists could expect a degree of career and economic stability and yet feel relatively uncompromised.”
From 1968: Radical Protest and its Enemies. Used with permission of Harper. Copyright © 2018 by Richard Vinen.