Is a New Politics Possible?

What were the major educational changes during the Sixties?

Some of the major assumptions, many of the practices, and most of the myths of higher education were badly shaken. There is no doubt that some transformations took place. There is considerable question, however, whether the transformations provided the foundation for anything enduring.

At many institutions the traditional curriculum has been greatly modified or abandoned in favor of more “experimental” courses. Apart from the occasional vice of promoting non-courses, experimentalism has mainly meant things like encouraging students to initiate courses or to share in formulating them; placing less emphasis upon grades or devising new symbols of performance; adopting an open-minded view of what will be acceptable as “work” in a course; and, in general, making it possible for students to choose the mode and pace of their studies.

The virtue of experimentalism is to have recognized, and to have attempted to break with, the passive character of the “educational process,” as it is called, at most institutions, especially at the larger ones. This is a step forward, as virtue usually is, but hardly a revolution. Above all, it evades rather than confronts the great change which has come over the students of the Sixties and which is expressed in their hostility toward curricula designed to prepare them for a “place” in the job structure of society. Many able students plainly want no part of what America has customarily offered its college graduates. Although experimental courses tend to reflect this anti-vocationalism, they also tend to exacerbate the powerlessness which is the lot of those who renounce a vocational calling.

“Student participation” was another of the novelties of the period. The most controversial questions here centered around the matters of faculty appointments and promotion, student admissions, and degree requirements. Now that rhetoric and passions have subsided, it can be clearly seen that neither the great hopes of the challengers nor the great fears of the defenders have been fulfilled.

The most explosive possibilities of “participation” appeared in the controversies surrounding the establishment of black studies programs or departments. There was an evident split between those blacks, on the one side, who looked upon the programs as a way of introducing a neglected subject matter and altering the racial composition of faculties and student bodies and, on the other side, those who conceived the programs as training camps for activists and staging grounds for struggle in the ghetto. It is too early to judge which, if either, of these elements will win, or whether they will remain in tension. It is also too early to determine whether blacks will insist on segregating their programs and personnel, thereby consolidating independent enclaves within the universities, or whether they will consent to one or another form of integration. However this comes out, a truly profound change in American society will have taken place only when black youth can look forward with the same confidence as white youth to college attendance as an almost normal part of…

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