As this is being written, the colleges and universities are digging in for another round of campus troubles. Since the outbreak at Berkeley in 1964, the campuses have become a problem of national concern and, despite the many diagnoses, a matter of puzzlement. Although the head of one major university, responding to a US senator’s question whether greater financial aid might not solve the universities’ ills, remarked that he knew of no difficulty which would be worsened by more money, the puzzlement remains. Most educators and public officials agree that higher education is in deep financial trouble, but no one believes that lack of funds has produced student unrest, even though it may contribute to the conflicts over black and ethnic studies.
American politicians are not at their best when confronting problems which elude a financial solution, and it was only natural that they should fall back to other familiar positions. The first consisted of forcing the campus problems into legal categories from which, presto, they emerged as issues of rule violation and laxity in law enforcement. The obvious solution was to withdraw government aid from disaffected students and to warn the colleges and universities that they would suffer financial loss if they continued to be soft on law and order. The second position was equally predictable: trace the problems to an international Communist conspiracy, and then prove the allegation by introducing hostile witnesses, in this instance some SDS types and a few Yippies.
Although it is likely that higher penalties will tend to discourage campus protests by raising the material and psychic costs to the activists, it is unlikely that such measures will prove to be of more than symbolic significance—interesting testimony to the ways our decision-makers perceive the problem within a framework of public outrage and private anxiety. President Nixon himself has expressed private worry that student discontents might persist even if the Vietnam war ended, which has the merit, at least, of leaving open the possibility of discussing the state of the campuses in other than the conventional terms of public policy. For it may be that we are experiencing a profound crisis in the liberal psyche, broader yet similar to that expressed by John Stuart Mill:
Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you? And an irrepressible self-consciousness answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.
Suppose no Vietnam, no racial tensions, no poverty….
Perhaps, then, we might think of the student problem, not as a policy question, but as a symbolic fact, as a state of affairs intimating a more general disorder.
Recall the remarkable quality of Academic Commencement, 1969. Normally commencement is an amiable time, when relatives, friends, and dignitaries gather to honor the graduating students and …
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 all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.