Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Student Activism - 1960s and Now. Part 1.

The 1960s are legendary (and infamous) for their student political movements. At no time before or since have American students seemed to be a powerful force for social change. Today young organizers hear stories of those years with awe and sometimes a sense of superiority. It is a shame, some of us think, that students cannot muster such enthusiasm and energy. If only we could rekindle that spirit again! But some of us also hold a degree of disdain for those defeated idealists. Imagine the naivete of thinking that as a young student you could change the world. Imagine the hubris of thinking that as a privileged member of the middle class and a college educated elite you even have the right to try.

There are many kinds of feelings among students considering the mythology of that dramatic time period. But what really happened? Were young radicals naive and arrogant? Were they just crunchy hippies on acid trips? What was so different about that time? I picked up Democracy in the Streets to see if I might learn a little bit about the era.

Perhaps I could find insights into why young people were active then, and we scorn activism now. What was the ideology that fed the mass movements? What kinds of organizational structures made them possible? Why did they dissolve in the end? What would it take today to rekindle civic participation among youth? I've read only the beginning of the story so far, and I'll keep posting as the story develops. But what I've learned has surprised me. The beginning of the New Left is almost exactly the same story as that of student activism in the last few years. The similarities come so thick and fast its creepy.

Students were considered, then as now, a pretty apathetic bunch. Back then even voting was forbidden to most students. Like today, a few were hyper-political activists. Many of these saw as their objective "to re-create [...] the art of political discussion with a democratic and non-sectarian flavor" (55, the words of Tom Hayden). One founder of the New Left, Alan Haber, "stressed his vision of the campus as 'a laboratory where students test ideas and techniques which are later used in all areas of society" (33). Organizations such as Talk Lab , , Penn State's Social Awareness Committee and many others follow exactly this same model. A very small number of students want to create an atmosphere on campus of political awareness. In the bleakest interpretation, a group of young politicos are trying to turn everyone else into young politicos. Tom Hayden was right when he said this tiny movement is, in a sense, evangelical.

Students in the early 60s were experimenting with many of the same organizational structures and ideas on how to reform society. The famous Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee "sharply distinguished itself from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Martin Luther King by its emphasis on 'group-centered leadership" (56). Activists talked about building a participatory democracy, and focused energy on building non-hierarchical communities on their own campuses.


In an article written for The Michigan Daily [Tom Hayden] suggested [...] 'The University must work relentlessly at being a face-to-face, rather than a mass society. [...] To foster a sense of genuine community required a 'democratization of decision-making'.


The public sphere is brimming with activists and scholars discussing participatory politics and non-hierarchical organizational structures. What I never realized, and what I think has escaped the notice of many of today's activists, is that these ideas are not at all new.

However student activists in the early 1960s had two things that modern students do not. First, the President of the United States proclaimed his support for youth power. In his inaugural address in 1961, Kennedy announced, "Let the word go forth from this time and place [...] to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." (55) Whether Presidential support helped student organizers, or whether it was simply a reflection of a broader social belief in the potential of young people to contribute to society, I do not know. Either way, it couldn't be bad for student political participation.

Second, the Civil Rights Movement became an essential resource for organizers as well (I think) as a source of the movement's demise. The positive influence on the nascent student political movement is clear. The hatred and segregation in the South gave students a clear enemy. And resistance in the South gave college students their first taste of political participation. The book's author, James Miller, explains that boycotts and sit-ins inspired by actions of SNCC "were an organizer's dream. 'They required a minimal commitment,' says Sharon Jeffry. ' People had to talk about it and say that that's what they were doing. But it was only two hours in the afternoon" (34). People become politically active in small increments, and the civil rights movement gave student organizers the tools to make that happen.

I'm beginning to suspect that the civil rights movement also became a problem for student politics too. Alan Haber argued that students needed "an organization that could illuminate the connections between issues like the arms race, poverty and racism and the discontents of the student body". (23) The student political movement was about engaging students in participating in democracy, helping them organize, helping them learn how to be active and aware citizens in every facet of society. The civil rights campaign gave tools to bring students into participation in politics. From there, students would be ready to participate in other areas of society too, fighting for change where ever they saw it needed. However I think it is possible that the civil rights movement subsumed the nascent student political movement. I think it is even more likely that the anti war movement finished off what was left of the student political movement. And then when the war ended, nothing was left to carry forward the energy, experience and habits of activists.


But i don't know yet. Maybe more reading in this excellent book will get me closer to the answer. And please feel free to share your thoughts about student activism now and then.

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