The Harvard Strike
Push Comes to Shove
The Right to Say "We"
To ask how it could have happened at Harvard reveals a basic misunderstanding of “campus unrest” and of modern society. Yet the assumption that student protest results from there being something wrong with students or colleges dies hard. After 1964, that assumption drove faculty members away from Berkeley toward what they thought would be the quieter groves of Academe at places like Harvard and Columbia. The same assumption led Archibald Cox, the Harvard law professor who headed the Fact-Finding Commission on the Columbia disturbances, to predict that it wouldn’t happen at Harvard because of Harvard’s close faculty-student relationships, residential houses, and tradition of undergraduate teaching.
Yet it has long been clear that campus unrest is not “caused” by some flaw in the student body. The experience of Michigan State is illustrative. Several years ago, in its campaign for national prominence, Michigan State decided to go after National Merit winners. Special scholarships and a hard sell produced almost as many Merit scholars as Harvard, the front-runner, had. Most of these students were enrolled in special honors programs that provided close student-faculty contact. All things considered, it seemed like a fine idea.
But these students unexpectedly transformed what had been a vast, somnolent, nonpolitical campus into a college with an underground newspaper, an active SDS chapter, visible cultural alienation, a drug culture, and extreme political disaffection—all led by the much-sought-after National Merit scholars. They and their friends even picketed state legislators in nearby Lansing, thus destroying the myth that all the radicals were in far-off Ann Arbor.
Dozens of research studies have since confirmed the lesson of Michigan State: a “good” student body, as defined by high aptitude scores, intellectual motivation, and plans to complete college and graduate school, makes student unrest more likely.1 One study of several hundred American colleges and universities showed that about 90 percent of all protests involving the war in Southeast Asia could have been predicted simply by knowing the characteristics of the student body. Students who mark “none” for religion, have high IQs, are intellectually oriented and politically liberal, and who come from educated professional families are likely to “cause trouble,” especially if you put a lot of them on one campus. In short, Harvard.
Conversely, the best way not to have student protests is to congregate in a small college a homogeneous group of extremely pious, dumb, conservative students who view higher education as vocational training and come from politically inactive working-class or lower middle-class families. Most of America’s seven million students are closer to this profile than to the Harvard profile. Predictably, therefore, most of America’s 2,500 “institutions of higher education” did not strike after Cambodia, Kent State, and Jackson State.
Studies of the psychological characteristics of “protest-prone” students merely amplify the Harvard profile. Compared with their inactive classmates, protesters turn out to be more independent, more freethinking, less conventional. The vulgar theories of student neuroticism, Oedipal rebellion, boredom, paranoia, hedonism, or family permissiveness as causes of protest all prove to be…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.