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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 growing up.

If there was any one change in American higher education that was visible to all observers, it was the increasing politicization of the campuses. We have already treated this matter at some length in other articles in The New York Review,1 and here we shall only consider why politicization has evoked such widespread apprehension and misgivings. The most common charge is that political activity contaminates the search for truth and jeopardizes academic freedom. Politics means partisanship and partisanship is the enemy of truth.

Rather than attempt to argue that the notion of academic freedom needs to be revised and that revision must be preceded by a more searching inquiry into the nature of politics and of political education, we shall only suggest that in large measure the fears about politicization of the campuses arise out of an unduly narrow conception of politics. This conception faithfully reflects the narrow terms in which Americans have typically talked about and practiced politics. That mode of thought and that practice are major contributing factors to the present crisis of American society.

In America, politics means bargaining and compromise between organized groups for limited and usually material prizes. To most citizens, it means periodically choosing between one or another moderate candidate and one or another blurred issue. Even though the stakes are limited, the rules of the game are many and confining. Hence, small novelties look like major violations. When new actors appear, e.g., blacks or students, employing new tactics and language, and pursuing “ideal” goals, intense fear and hostility are aroused. Such departures are viewed as radical, not because they necessarily are, but because politics itself has been so narrowly conceived, so tightly drawn, that innovation appears as revolution. Americans have always been hospitable to economic innovation but in recent times they have become increasingly suspicious and fearful of creativity in the political realm.

Perhaps the most discussed change on the campuses during the decade was the appearance of that troublesome companion of politics, violence. It is worthwhile remembering that violence was not a part of student politics in the beginning—in fact, it hardly appeared before early 1968. Since then, it has continued to grow.

In order to understand the growth and significance of violence in student politics, it is necessary to distinguish the violence which is overt, spontaneous, and committed by large numbers of people employing mainly the force of their bodies, from the violence which is covert, calculated, and perpetrated by a small handful using manufactured weapons. This latter form of violence, properly called terrorism, is a familiar historical phenomenon. Sometimes it is the expression of personal pathology, and sometimes the product of a totally despairing analysis of the possibility of significant social change. The United States has experienced terrorism before (e.g., by anarchist assassins, Ku Klux Klansmen, and Molly Maguires) but what is disturbing about the new terrorism is that it is done by young people. Furthermore, this terrorism is justified in some quarters (e.g., Weathermen) by an ideology brewed from domestic American ingredients. The new terrorism, in short, cannot be dismissed as the work of foreign fanatics inspired by alien doctrines. It represents the last stage of the despair of the young with America.

The mode of violence which we have described as overt, unpremeditated, and collective is closely connected with, even an outgrowth of, the new politics spawned on the campuses—a politics which responds to different rhythms, pursues different ends, and is communicated in a different language from conventional politics. It is pulsating and kinetic, contemptuous of compromise and impatient with routines; and it threatens always to overflow customary channels. It sees victory as something gained by energy and exuberance rather than cunning. Like its insistent music in the background, it is shaped toward a climactic moment. When it encounters certain obstacles, its gathering energy is ready to explode. When confronted by abstract rules and policies, by stolid and anonymous agents of authority, by the rituals which civilized society contrives to defuse passion, it is ready to spill over into provocative and destructive acts.

What are the conditions which produce this kind of violence? In part it arises out of frustrating encounters with a cumbersome and unresponsive system. The frustration grows as the new politics increasingly differentiates itself from the established practices. The system thus appears increasingly unresponsive—not necessarily because it in fact is, but because its challengers have sharpened the distinctions. Eventually the point is reached where the system may in fact respond but the challengers cannot recognize it—just as the system managers may find no sense in the antics of the challengers.

In part, too, this kind of violence is a reaction to the drabness of American politics, a reaction natural in a generation which loves whatever is dramatic, colorful, and provocative. Perhaps (as the cliché goes) we are a violent people; but maybe that is because we have increasingly become a politically unimaginative and conservative people. We now congratulate ourselves on the fact that we are the oldest, most continuous—and therefore—most stable democracy in the world. Violence is a protest against pedestrian politics and stale rhetoric. It becomes a means of turning politics into drama.

Although some of the overt and spontaneous campus violence may be explained by the usual categories of “mob psychology,” and although some of it is the work of petulant and spoiled kids, and some more of it originates in black frustration and rage against a white world, it is important to recognize the deeper significance of the assaults on both persons and property.

Students have not attacked the police with guns: it is difficult to find an authenticated instance of actual sniping, much less a case where a student sniper has been convicted in a court of law. They have used clubs, rocks, and their own bodies as weapons. When students assault police, the physical contact becomes a way of asserting that there is a human reality to the world, that the world is not all plastic and steel. If, in Hegel’s world, the master and the slave needed each other, in our world perhaps the cop, sealed within his battle jacket and shielded by his visor, needs the student as much as the student needs him.

The mounting assaults against property are correlated with significant changes in the nature and meaning of property. Younger generations have been brought up in a world of replaceable and disposable objects. Property has lost its associations with permanence and stability, just as it has long since lost any direct connection with labor. Important property is institutional property—which is to say the main forms of property are associated with the main forms of power and authority in our society. In either case, whether property is viewed as replaceable or as institutional, it loses sanctity.

The most worrisome aspect of student violence is that it is increasing, which means that it threatens to become an integral part of the new politics; if not a constant feature, then at least an immanent possibility. Student activists, while reluctant to use violence, have been equally reluctant to condemn their “allies” who do use it, be they Angels, Crazies, or Panthers. A certain dulling of sensibilities is bound to result, a loss of sureness about what is morally intolerable. This will lead inevitably to brutalization, to viewing the enemy precisely as he is said to view you: as an object.

Shortly after our last essay in this journal was written, American soldiers invaded Cambodia and National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University. The campus response was prompt and passionate—the most powerful expression to date of the new politicization.

Cambodia provoked a genuine political uprising on the nation’s campuses which has left a range of consequences whose full effects have not yet been fully registered. During the first week of May, about 500 campuses shook off ordinary routines to express their shock and outrage. An uneasy academic year erupted in a storm of political activity. “Before Cambodia,” ran a recent memorandum to the President, “many of us on the campuses believed that deep disaffections afflicted only a small minority of students. Now we conclude that [Cambodia] may have triggered a vast pre-existing charge of pent-up frustration and dissatisfaction.”

  1. 1

    See NYR, March 11, 1965; February 9, 1967; June 19, 1969; October 9, 1969; May 7, 1970. A collection of these essays including the present one will be published in October by The New York Review under the title The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond.

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