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Education and the Technological Society

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 distinguished recipients of honorary degrees. But last June it was a time of high tension. Administrators and faculty prayed that the ceremonies might be completed without interruption by dissidents or militants. Parents looked on in shock and disbelief at the dress, deportment, and rhetoric of their offspring. The truly remarkable feature of commencement, however, was not the threat of disruption by the young, but the abdication and anxiety of the old. The President of the United States went near no major college or university. He chose, instead, to appear first at a junior college in South Dakota, where he dedicated the Karl Mundt Library and denounced student troublemakers, and then at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he affirmed that patriotism was still the highest virtue, and pledged to defend the military against its domestic critics.

Customarily, commencement is a time when notable figures from public and private life invite their youthful audiences into the adult world and seek to describe its promise. But this year, all across the land, and in all manner of academic institutions, student speakers dominated the proceedings, telling the adults what was wrong with the world and what the new generation intended to do about it. They rejected both the austere past symbolized by Dakota and the Cold War anti-Communism of Karl Mundt, and the lethal and bleak technological future of the Air Force Academy. They insisted that the world was now theirs, and had to be understood in their terms.

The June events signified a reversal of the rites of passage and a redefinition of the rituals of rebellion. Despite that, they have now been nearly forgotten.

One reason why the events of June were soon forgotten is that the modes of interpreting campus troubles have become fixed within a certain pattern. Placed within that pattern, the June days seemed disturbing, but not surprising. For nearly a half-dozen years now the language and imagery of revolution have been used to describe and analyze events on the campuses—revolt, rebellion, student power, violence, and the like. Once this framework is set, a host of historical associations related to the great revolutions of the past arises, inflating the fears of the threatened, and swelling the dreams of the hopeful. Believing themselves in the midst of revolution, both sides relax their inhibitions about violence.

Bacon once remarked that “even if men went mad all after the same fashion, they might agree one with another well enough.” If political and campus officials and large numbers of students agree that they are locked in revolutionary struggle and strive to act accordingly, it is idle to say that they have misunderstood their situation. But it is worth asking, nonetheless, whether inherited notions of revolution are not anachronistic and hence a source of confusion for all parties.

Most of our ideas and images are still shaped by revolutions which happened in pre-industrial societies where differentials of wealth, power, and privilege were deeply and hopelessly etched, and where a small and visible ruling class on the top oppressed and exploited the masses on the bottom. The revolutions of France, Russia, and China were directed against the long historical past and its persistence into the present. Today any lucid discussion of revolution in the advanced states must begin with the fact of technological society, not with ideas fashioned to analyze traditional societies. It must ask whether that fact does not by itself alter the sense in which a revolution is a meaningful possibility; whether social evils do not therefore acquire a novel form; and whether the marks of oppression are not to be sought among groups very different from the oppressed classes described in the classical literature of revolution.

The main feature of technological society is not merely rapid change, but, as its admirers have said, creative destruction. It not only destroys habits, beliefs, and institutions inherited from the past, but those which were created only yesterday. In a society where memory is an irritant because it impedes progress, concepts like “tradition” or categories like “the past” are mostly meaningless. To revolt against such a society means striking against the fluid present rather than against the burdensome past. It means, too, that instead of struggling, as revolutionists usually have, against societies which seemed incapable of moving and growing, today’s revolutionist is in the absurd position of protesting against a society in constant movement and capable of promising everything, from the abolition of poverty to the abolition of death—either as a penalty or as a disease.

Talk about “revolution on the campus” is pathetic or mythological, for not only does it overlook the hard fact of technological society, but it also exaggerates the revolutionary potential of the campus. Because universities and colleges are vital to the economy and culture of technological society and because they exercise power over their own members, one may be deluded into believing that they are instrumentalities of power, and hence bases for revolution. Sometimes universities and colleges are able to exercise influence over other parts of society, but by most criteria of power they are weak. As potential centers of revolution they are hopeless, for there is little power to mobilize.

The manifest discontents and chronic disorders on the campuses are important, but their importance is distorted if they are viewed as revolutionary cells in a body politic vulnerable to the classic disorders of revolution. The condition of the campuses is significant because the campus represents the most advanced part of our society, not its most oppressed. It is where the knowledge explosion is happening, where the discontents with our racial, urban, and foreign policies are continuously aired and publicized, and where all manner of experiments are being lived by the new generation. Although student activists are apt to describe students as the “new proletariat” or simply as “niggers,” their plight is significant not because they are oppressed but because they are corrupted.

Student discontent first broke out in the economically most advanced and affluent society (something which has been overlooked by social scientists who have warned of the impending “Latin Americanization of the universities”). Most of the trouble and violence has occurred at the most prestigious institutions. Except for the recent outbreaks by blacks and their “Third World” allies, the rebels have come from comfortable, professional, middle-class and upper middle-class families.

These are familiar facts, but the conclusion from them is what matters: if a revolutionary condition exists on the nation’s campuses, it represents a protest by the middle class against the middle class. Or more pointedly, it is a condition created because the middle class has turned against its world and against its own values. How little similarity there is between the politics of the students and classical revolutionary situations is evident in the intense and almost universal hostility of the working classes and rural populations toward the students. The hatred of the “masses” is stirred by the abrasive politics on campus, and by the casual sexuality, drug experimentation, and general slovenliness of the students. It is kept in motion by the continuous spectacle of the sons and daughters of those who have made it in America and who now defile those values of work, achievement, and upward mobility which sustain the city worker and the people of the small towns and rural areas. To claim that the workers and farmers of America are the victims of false consciousness is to miss the main point. What is being expressed on the campuses is a post-Marxian phenomenon, an attempt at change initiated from above and opposed to the aspirations, grievances, and values of those below the middle classes in the social hierarchy. It is, moreover, an attempt at revolution which dares not go into the streets, the factories, and (increasingly) the ghettos.

If the state of the campuses is more reflective of a middle-class revolt than of a revolutionary situation, then the relative ineffectiveness of the students may reveal something important about the possibilities of fundamental change in a liberal, affluent, and technologically advanced society. Tocqueville’s conjecture that among democratic nations “great intellectual and political revolutions will become more difficult and less frequent than is supposed” now seems confirmed. A society capable of producing floods of consumer goods, of supporting high levels of employment, or subsidizing those it cannot employ, of practicing a form of politics in which organized groups gain some material satisfaction most of the time, and of providing endless varieties of entertainment and distraction is a difficult target to attack. Such a society lends itself more to “targets of opportunity” than to frontal assaults, e.g., poverty, discrimination, inadequate housing, and exploited fruit-pickers.

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