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 wrong. But the cliché about student activists being “idealistic” is empirically correct: differences in “level of moral reasoning” distinguish protesters from non-protesters more decisively than any other variable, with the protesters being greatly more “principled” and less “conventional.”
But none of this supports the claim that the social-psychological characteristics of the student body “cause” student protest. On the contrary, student characteristics merely create a state of readiness or unreadiness, a tinder box that may be wet or dry. Yet once this conclusion became clear, those who stopped blaming students for campus unrest usually moved on to blame their colleges. Thus Governor Reagan, when not threatening a “blood bath” of student nihilists, tends to lay the blame for campus troubles at the door of an indifferent, aloof, spineless, and lazy faculty.
Most liberal educators also agree that improving campus conditions should help to quiet the restless natives. In essence, the most common recommendations urge using industrial psychology on students: give them better “channels of communication,” appoint them to more committees, try work-study programs, and above all “involve them more.” In offering these recommendations, on one pays much attention to the experience of Antioch, where for decades students have been involved to the eyeballs in work-study, governance, and even faculty appointments, yet where alienation, radicalism, and protest nonetheless flourish.
Furthermore, there is not a shred of evidence that academic problems are causal or that curricular and governance reforms make any difference to unrest. As a group, activists are no less satisfied with the academic side of their education than anyone else. Since protesters are generally better students than non-protesters, they already get more of the faculty contact that is supposed to solve their discontents. And many of the proposed solutions for campus unrest seem more likely to stir it up. In the present political climate, closer faculty-student relationships, smaller seminars, or anything else that encourages students to think independently or act on their convictions is likely to produce protest. Educational reforms that challenge students to think for themselves are desirable on other grounds, but to advertise them as a means of “cooling student protest” is to advertise gasoline as a fire extinguisher.
All of this seems fairly obvious. But it has not stopped commentators from being continually surprised when “some of our finest students” keep cropping up in occupied buildings or when “some of our most distinguished universities” keep having student troubles. This surprise suggests an inability to hear what students are actually saying. Students do not protest, strike, or occupy buildings because they want to be on faculty committees or in order to cozy up to their professors. In virtually every major disturbance on any American campus in the past five years, they have explicitly objected to the university’s collusion with the war in Southeast Asia and/or its insensitivity to or collaboration with the prevalent racism of American society. To maintain that youthful unrest is “symptomatic” of something other than the sorry state of the nation is to reveal a motivated deafness to what students have been shouting at the top of their lungs.
In setting off campus turmoil, the issues matter, and if we are to talk about “causes” we must first talk about a long list of these issues: war, racism, injustice, poverty, repression, imperialism, hypocrisy, pollution, manipulation, and the involvement, indifference, or collusion of American higher education with such evils. To be sure, the issues also exist on many quiescent campuses. So social-psychological and institutional factors play a role. But this role is not to “cause” unrest, but to open the eyes and ears of students to real issues.
Once a protest is launched, however, the situation changes and the local scenery becomes crucial. What happens then depends mostly on the personalities of the participants: e.g., on the tactics and goals of radical student groups, on faculty involvement, on the administration, and on the trustees or regents. There are three general scenarios of “campus unrest.”
Scenario I is the Responsive (or Co-optive) Scenario, epitomized by Brewster at Yale or Perkins at Cornell. At Yale last fall, for example, a small group of SDSers and friends occupied a building to protest the firing of a black woman working in a college dining hall. The lady in question was immediately rehired, and the occupying students were suspended but, having vacated the building, were reinstated with a warning. The whole affair blew over without causing much fuss except for a series of lively faculty debates on the appropriateness of the penalty.
Or again, Yale students went on strike before the May Day Rally in New Haven to support a fair trial for the New Haven Black Panthers. President Brewster immediately announced his personal “skepticism” that black revolutionaries could obtain justice in the courts, the Yale College faculty sanctioned the strike, and the university opened its doors wide to tens of thousands of uninvited demonstrators. No one got hurt, and Brewster, with an assist from Spiro Agnew, emerged a campus hero.
This scenario takes strong leadership, political savvy, and moral courage to carry off. The danger is, of course, that the president, as at Cornell, may not be able to bring the faculty and trustees along with him. The scenario is therefore especially dangerous where there are large faculties of business administration, engineering, and agronomy, or a conservative board of regents. In that case, the president is finished, and a new president committed to Scenario III will soon be found. Thus we now have Hayakawa at San Francisco State.
Scenario II is the “Sit-It-Out” Scenario exemplified by the University of Chicago. Through two occupations of the Administration Building, Chancellor Levi simply waited out the occupiers, transferring university functions to other buildings when possible, appointing investigating commissions to study the controversial issues, and loudly announcing that Daley’s legions would not be called in.
Meanwhile back at the Building, another characteristic scenario unfolds. Deprived of the threat of a bust, the Occupiers begin to recognize that only a few among them are committed revolutionaries. A split develops between the short-haired political radicals and the long-haired “new life style” radicals. The former have the advantage of discipline, ideology, and experience, but the latter are more numerous. Furthermore, within a few days, the Liberation School in the Building proves more boring than the classes outside, the food in the Building gets worse than the food in the college dining halls, and even the thick carpet on the president’s floor is revealed as harder than the dormitory mattresses. Students start going to classes, eating in the dining halls, and sleeping in their rooms—all the while “occupying” the Building. Soon, the investigating commission brings in a report proposing some fairly reasonable compromise, which unifies the rest of the campus behind the Administration and further splits the Occupiers. Within a few days, the Occupiers emerge from the Building to face disciplinary proceedings that end up by expelling their “ringleaders.”
The trouble with Scenario II is that the president has to ward off enormous pressures from all sides while the Building is occupied. On the one hand, he has to suppress ad hoc faculty negotiating committees and prevent open warfare between excited faculty hawks and doves. On the other hand, he must placate trustees, alumni, and police officials who demand an immediate bust. He also has to retain his cool while Occupiers xerox his mail, spray-paint revolutionary slogans on his office walls, and upend his office furniture. Scenario II thus requires a president with iron control over his own feelings, over his trustees, over the faculty, and over most of the students. Few men can maintain this control through more than one or two major confrontations.
Scenario III is the most familiar: the Bust Scenario of Berkeley-Columbia-Harvard. Here the president becomes convinced that unless the Occupiers of the Building are immediately expelled, the University, the Higher Learning, and ultimately Western Civilization will crumble. The manifest issues of the protest are seen as “contrived,” mere “pretenses for student violence”—a view reinforced by cynical radicals like Mark Rudd but not shared by most of the Occupiers. The predictable bust follows, with predictably bloody heads, predictable police brutality, and today the predictable danger that a student or two may get killed.
The classic post-bust scenario involves a student strike, the granting of most student demands, the polarization of the faculty, and the resignation or early retirement of the president. There ensues much brave talk about “restructuring,” which leads to new faculty-student committees and sometimes to some minor improvements in college life.
Three recent books about Harvard describe a variant of Scenario III. But since all deal primarily with the question, “How could it have happened at Harvard?” all will be of primary interest to Harvard alumni. The Harvard Strike was written by four on-the-spot reporters for the Harvard radio station, WHRB. Their account is detailed, mildly euphoric, and predictably critical of President Pusey; their style owes much to Time magazine. The book will take its rightful place on the lengthening shelf of comparable accounts of similar events elsewhere.
Steven Kelman, Harvard 1970 and the author of Push Comes to Shove, spent much of his time at Harvard trying to organize the Harvard chapter of the Young Peoples’ Socialist League (YPSL). Kelman is a “hereditary Socialist” who dislikes SDS and drugs, but really cares about Norman Thomas, socialism, and the working classes. His account is mostly an exposé of the dirty linen of cultural revolutionaries and political revolutionaries in Harvard SDS. He provides much useful documentation for anyone interested in exploring further the irrationality and manipulativeness of some radical students.
Kelman’s basic accusation against YPSL’s opponents in SDS is that they are undemocratic, manipulative, and self-righteous to the point of snobbery and elitism, besides which they were considered much more newsworthy than YPSL by the Harvard Crimson. Much of what Kelman says is clearly valid: the infatuation of upper-class PL members with the “proletariat” is based on scant understanding of hard-hats and teamsters; the new life style “revolution” of the children of the intelligentsia is often antidemocratic and antipolitical in its cultural elitism. And Kelman’s question to a classmate, “If grass is so great, how come you’re so unhappy?” is a really good question.
But for all the validity in his criticisms, Kelman emerges as not a whit less self-righteous than his opponents in SDS. He never really wonders why his brand of old-line socialism failed to excite much enthusiasm among his Harvard classmates, and he never really asks why the “cultural revolution” drew so many of his classmates to it. Instead of explaining, he condemns. Furthermore, Kelman’s angry book is written almost entirely to those on his left; but if we are to believe his account, they have long refused to pay any attention to what he says. Alas, his book will mostly be read by those far to his right, and it will be used (much against his wishes) to provide further ammunition for the Reagans, Mitchells, and Agnews in their politically profitable war against the alienated and radical young.
If after reading Kelman one still believed that youth had a monopoly on virtue, Zorza’s book, The Right to Say “We”, should dispel the illusion for good. Zorza is a young Englishman filled with the excessive self-regard that studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, confers upon some students. He shares with Kelman and the WHRB reporters the conviction that what happened at Harvard has planetary significance. And he further believes that transcendental discoveries were made in or near the Harvard Yard in April, 1969. Zorza’s book is of interest largely as a specimen of the phenomenology of one Harvard sophomore in the late 1960s. He alternates between fantasies of the power and the glory that will accrue to him and his classmates because of their Harvard education, fantasies of a genteel cultural revolution, fantasies of being a “student leader,” and fantasies that his generation has discovered for the first time in history such qualities as human relatedness.
Because each of these books is primarily concerned with how it could happen at Harvard, we learn little from them about campus unrest in general or even about radicalization in particular. As the WHRB report indicates, President Pusey was admittedly distant and somewhat devious in his attempts to maintain ROTC despite faculty disaccreditation. And by choosing the Bust Scenario, Pusey unwittingly assured the departure of ROTC, delivered students to a strike, split the faculty, and hastened his own retirement. But recent campus history makes clear that human warmth, administrative candor, and political genius are as scarce in most college presidents’ offices as in the White House. Harvard SDS in 1969 was doubtless undemocratic, manipulative, snobbish, and elitist, as Kelman claims—but then these have always been said to be the characteristics of Harvard men. And Zorza’s belief that his is the first generation ever to discover the meaning of community—well, it takes us nowhere.2
In any case, understanding exactly what happened at Harvard in April, 1969, does not help much in explaining the world-wide revolt of the educated young. We already knew that the likelihood of protests at places like Harvard was extraordinarily high. These books merely help us to understand how what could have been an isolated protest was escalated into a police bust and a student strike.
For broader understanding, we must look beyond Harvard and beyond the United States. Ultimately, the causes of campus unrest are no less complex than the societies that spawn unrest. But they lie in the interaction of real issues and a student generation uniquely prepared to perceive and respond to these issues. The real problems of industrially advanced countries are thus one “cause”: enormous warfare expenditures; persistent inequality, poverty, and racism; the despoliation of the environment; a manipulated consumer society. Some of the issues are new: no nation in modern history has so brutally devastated a third-rate power as America has devastated Indochina; never before have universities assumed such importance as the research-development-training centers of a society. But many of the other issues are old: inequality, racism, hypocrisy, and poverty have been around a long time, and in even more virulent forms than today.
Thus issues are necessary but not sufficient. By themselves, they are like trees falling silently in the forest with no one to notice them. The second “cause” is therefore the new youthful audience, hypersensitive to issues that most men and women in previous generations chose to ignore. An essential part of the dynamic of advanced industrial societies is the creation of new groups of young men and women who view traditional truths with skepticism, established institutions with wariness, and decreed policies with mistrust. These young can be, as Kelman accuses and Zorza illustrates, naïve, manipulative, ahistorical, spiteful, and neurotically driven. Their “counter-cultures” are often shallow, thin, and transparently parasitic on the dominant society.
But the oppositional young are extraordinarily attuned to the real problems and vulnerabilities of the techno-cratic society. And every indicator points to a continuation and spread of their critical disengagement. Their experiments in life styles, counter-institutions, counter-cultures, and unalienated consciousness are beginning to define a new reaction against the technocratic order that dominates all the most powerful nations of the world. The opposition of the young provides no “solutions” to the problems it pinpoints; campus unrest is the antithesis, not the “answer” to the issues that inspire it. But if there are ever to be solutions and answers, they must bring together the technological wizardry and productivity of industrialized societies with the oppositional mentality of youth. That synthesis might really lessen campus unrest, even at Harvard.
September 24, 1970
This account applies to white students. The frequency of protests involving black students (at predominantly white colleges) is directly related to their numbers: protests become probable once a “critical mass” of about fifty black student. ↩
For greater illumination on disaffected students, see Mark Gerzon (Harvard ’70), The Whole World is Watching (Viking, 1969); for a convincing account of radicalization, read Dotson Rader (Columbia ’68), I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore (David McKay, 1969); and for a cool, direct, and humane critique of the ideological turn toward violence of the student left, see Raymond Gozzi, Jr. (Harvard ’66), Ramblings (unpublished). ↩