Teach-Ins Helped Galvanize Student Activism in the 1960s. They Can Do So Again Today.

Teach-Ins Helped Galvanize Student Activism in the 1960s. They Can Do So Again Today.

Teach-Ins Helped Galvanize Student Activism in the 1960s. They Can Do So Again Today.

Then as now, the origin of a national political movement was in the initially obscure actions of ordinary individuals.


When the teach-ins protesting the Vietnam War erupted on many campuses across the country in 1965, academic administrators complained that the professors were politicizing their universities. But it was the universities that had already politicized the professors. Large increases in federal funding throughout the Cold War, including projects sponsored by the CIA and the Department of Defense, led to a politically driven reorientation of teaching and research aimed at combating the “Communist threat”—as by purging professors suspected of affiliation with it. While the physical sciences were directly involved in military research, the social sciences were largely realigned in conformity with the global geopolitics of the conflict, developing an emphasis on geographies, languages, economies, anthropologies, and histories of strategic Third World regions that had previously been marginal to their concerns. Taken together with fashionable “modernization theories” that sought to remake underdeveloped peoples in the Western image, knowledge itself was fast becoming the servant of imperial politics.

A number of social scientists became Cold Warriors themselves by entering into contracts with the US Army to provide information about politically troubled areas of Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. “Insurgency prophylaxis” is how it was called in the documents of the notorious Project Camelot operation of 1964–65. A multimillion-dollar enterprise in anthropological espionage, primarily focused on Latin America, Project Camelot blew up when it was accidentally and prematurely exposed in Chile. The severe political and academic censure from Latin America that followed was not lost on the dissident faction of North American social scientists who were already turned off by the perverse effects of Cold War on the academy. It would soon be all too easy for them to see the connections between the research-and-destroy projects of their colleagues in Latin America with the search-and-destroy missions of the American military in Vietnam.

In February of 1965, just a few months after successfully campaigning for the presidency against Barry Goldwater on a platform that declared “peace is our first concern,” Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the Vietnam War by ordering a sustained bombing of the North and dispatching the first American combat troops to the South. The effect of the bait and switch in dissident university circles was redoubled opposition to American imperial policies, ultimately culminating in a campus-specific mode of political resistance.

We were fewer than 30, the faculty who called a strike against the University of Michigan in mid-March of 1965. We were going to take our classes off-campus to profess against the Vietnam War. When Governor George Romney, the university administration, and other powers-that-be came down on our heads with threats and recriminations—some of our colleagues accused us of riot-envy, suggesting we were jealous of the contemporary Free Speech Movement at Berkeley—the strike metamorphosed into the original teach-in.

While several of us were meeting one night to respond to the criticism, the idea of “teaching in” instead of “teaching out” occurred to me—if that’s even the right word for a mental process that was more social than it was individual, and more instinctive than it was creative. The “in” rather than “out” form of protest involving a contrarian takeover of the premises was already in the zeitgeist, not only because of the recent anti-segregation sit-ins in the South, but also by virtue of the enduring memory of the great “sit-down strike” at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, almost 30 years earlier. The “Occupy” tactic was not born in 2011. Nor was the frame of mind that spontaneously came up with the notion of a teach-in. Linguists tell us that that words subconsciously convey the oppositions by which they are positively defined. Virtually without deliberation, I blurted out something like, “I’ve got it. They say we’re shirking our responsibilities. Let’s teach in instead of teaching out. We’ll take over the buildings after classes and talk about Vietnam all night. A teach-in.”

The contrarian impulse seems to run in the family. Earlier this year, more than 50 years after that memorable night in Ann Arbor, I found myself a featured speaker in a course called “The Election of 2016: A Semester-Long Teach-In,” offered by my son, Peter Sahlins, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley. Following my recollections of protest in “the old stoned age” of the 1960s, Prof. Laura Nader, a fellow anthropologist, spoke about the many techniques of political engagement now open to students, their effects potentially amplified by the algorithms of social media. Only momentarily was her enthusiasm tempered by a nostalgic glance at the former unity of Berkeley campus politics, in comparison with the diversity of just causes—women’s rights, LGBT rights, climate change, undocumented immigrants, Black Lives Matter, Muslims, and more—presently jostling one another on the famous Sproul Plaza agora. Taken together with student comments on the Berkeley course website, the current teach-in moment offered a comparative anthropological account of the academic cultures of activism, then and now.

One striking difference is that back then, in the early 1960s, activism was itself a culture: the youthful counter-culture that made resistance to “the Establishment” a lifestyle even before it was mobilized politically against the Vietnam War. Though it could also be found in Britain, the cultural rebellion apparently began in America with the music of the Beatles and Elvis, whose popularity among the young broke apart what had been a national harmony of the generations, all tuning their radios to Your Hit Parade on Saturday nights to listen to the country’s best-selling records. Long ago, Plato warned against a certain “lawlessness in music” that gradually insinuates itself into other social relations, until “it proceeds against the laws and constitution with wanton license.” Besides their musical “lawlessness,” the young men of the 1960s demonstrated against bourgeois culture by adopting jeans, the utilitarian garb of the working class, and wearing their hair long, by contrast to the militarized crew cuts previously in style. One thing led to another until the counterculture proceeded against the established proprieties “with wanton license,” as Plato put it: profanity in public, LSD and marijuana, the sexual revolution. Opposition became a way of being: It was experienced bodily, even pleasurably—in contrast to the fear and suffering that motivate many protesters today.

The counterculture was musical, sartorial, pharmacological, sexual, and scatological—but it was not yet fully political. Thinking that by changing the self they could change the world, the anti-establishment rebels remained committed in this respect to the individualism of the established cultural order. There were a few anti-authority student movements, primarily the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley (FSM). In the months and years following the first teach-ins, mounting student anxieties about military conscription gave an impetus to draft-card burnings and other student political action, but not so much as in the early days of the Johnson escalation, when the university resistance, at the instigation of the left-liberal faculty, broke out en masse. It was the teach-ins that largely politicized the countercultural generation and effectively nationalized antiwar protests.

Within weeks of the first teach-in at Michigan, on the night of Match 25, 1965, over a hundred others took place on campuses across the country—including a mega teach-in of 30,000 people at Berkeley. In May, the original Michigan group organized an all-day National Teach-In in Washington, DC, that was covered in part by several American and foreign TV networks—a telegraph in support arrived from Jean-Paul Sartre—and in whole by PBS. It was also broadcast by radio to over 200 campus stations. The teach-ins did not end the war, which went on for many years, but they began the peace. Leveraged by the mass and energy of the students, they awakened the conscience of the nation.

By contrast, the protests of today in many ways reverse the course of the anti–Vietnam War movement: The nation is leading and the universities are following. Beginning immediately with the news of Donald Trump’s election, an awakened citizenry across the country broke out in spontaneous civil disruptions that progressively coalesced into a massive national demonstration several weeks later, the impetus of which was then maintained by local groups resisting the regime in their own areas. The one remarkable similarity to the teach-ins of the ’60s is the origin of a national political movement in the initially obscure actions of ordinary individuals. Whatever led Theresa Stark, a retired attorney in Hawaii, on the day after the election, to organize a few friends for a Women’s March on Washington, or however Ezra Levin, Leah Greenberg, Angel Padilla, and fellow congressional staffers came to write the Indivisible movement’s Guide to Resist the Trump Agenda a few weeks later, the effect, as amplified by social media and joined by allied groups, was the mobilization of upward of a million people in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration—complemented by sympathetic marches around the globe. The movement then proliferated locally. By the end of February, some 7,000 Indivisible groups were in existence, with branches in all 50 states, where many turned up in public forums to harangue their congressional representatives. With youthful rebels in the vanguard, the protests of the 1960s passed from the local to the national; whereas the current “resistance” (as it is generally called), drawing from the beginning on people of all ages, classes, colors, and genders, puts national politics into local action.

Eliana Schiffer, a student at the recent Berkeley teach-in class I attended, was not off the mark when she noted that “what people don’t understand is that the left has become the establishment.” For all its opposition to a government of the right, the progressive movement is ambiguously “establishment” insofar as it aims to defend the gains in racial, gender, and sexual equality; abortion rights; health care; and more that were legally enacted in the wake of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Nor will adding economic justice to the list resolve certain conflicts between this sort of diversity politics and a more radical class politics, issues critically epitomized by Walter Benn Michaels’s observation that if half the CEOs in the United States were women, with salaries equal to their male counterparts, they would still be making upward of 300 times as much as their workers. Yet in the current context, diversity politics has tactical advantages, inasmuch as this broad spectrum of progressive causes is intrinsically unified—“indivisible”—in the significant respect that they are all dependent for their establishment on the democratic state. For better or worse, the entire agenda of the movement is subject to legislative, judicial, or executive decision. When Steve Bannon and his cronies declare their intention to destroy the current state and take back the culture, it motivates a coalition of opposed groups corresponding to the many vital issues at stake. “Diversity,” as another Berkeley student, Gabrielle Deguzman, said, “is one of the strongest things our generation has working for us.”

Just so: In respect of the diversity, timing, and forms of political action, the universities now mirror the national protest movements rather than initiate them. On the days immediately following the election, campuses, like the country at large, were the scenes of spontaneous walkouts, marches, rallies, vigils, and other impromptu demonstrations. At Cornell University on November 9, the local chapter of Planned Parenthood held a “cry-in,” and a number of students joined a Black Lives Matter march in Ithaca. At a walk-out of several hundred two days later, the leader of a campus Mexican group declared, “We are here making our identities known,” as the crowd chanted, “Donald Trump go away / Racist, sexist, anti-gay.”

Around the time of the inauguration, the campuses again came alive, but now in local marches that replicated the Women’s March on Washington. The solidarity with Washington was in many cases manifest by routes and crowds that iconically joined town and gown. In Berkeley, about 1,000 protesters, including high-school students and local residents, walked out from Sproul Plaza to rally in Oakland. In Ann Arbor, thousands marched from the town to a rally on “the Diag,” a crossroads at the center of the University of Michigan campus.

Other protests at colleges and universities have been for the most part smaller-scale, student-run events. I attended three at the University of Chicago (where I taught for more than two decades before retiring in 1997), one of which featured an array of diversity spokespersons ranging from campus socialists and Muslims to students for prison reform. The crowds at these events, roughly 200, consisted almost entirely of students, as were the speakers and cheerleaders, with only a sprinkling of faculty. I did not make the “teach-in” of late February where an outside guest, Bill Ayers, was speaking, but a faculty friend told me there were only about 50 people there, including “the usual four of us.” This is not your grandfather’s teach-in movement.

The students are coming out by the hundreds, or even fewer, where in 1965 they were thousands—at Sproul Plaza, 30,000. Nor are the campuses unified venues for political action. Faculty and students are going their separate protest ways. Though some administrators are now getting involved in the resistance, they are for the most part doing their own thing. More than 600 college and university presidents signed a statement in support of the sanctuary movement and in defense of “our undocumented immigrant students.” Representing the faculty collectively, the American Association of University Professors has associated itself with these and other protest issues, while the AAUP president, Rudy Fichtenbaum, publicly denounced the Trump election as “the greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthy period.” Individually, a number of professors have gone beyond the campus precincts to oppose the Trump regime on popular news sites, in newspaper op-eds, and through appearances on MSNBC. Of all these modes of academic protest, the interventions of esteemed professors such as of Robert Reich, Juan Cole, George Lakoff, Geoffrey Stone, and Lawrence Tribe in the public sphere have perhaps been the most effective.

Yet in our digital times, when much of the public sphere has gone to ground in social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, there may be a lot more political activity among students and professors than is public in the literal sense. Much more of the protest may be invisible than Indivisible. We have been made aware these days of a “deep state,” but the deep public sphere is at least as consequential, notably among the young citizens. Here are networks of friends and retweeters who can be rapidly mobilized to turn out in collective actions. What real political force this represents is difficult to say, but when a large number of determined people suddenly show up at the Seattle or Detroit airport to protect Muslim travelers against a government entry ban issued a few hours before, it is clear evidence that such networks have become forces to be reckoned with. It may well be that a new progressive generation is forming sight unseen.

On the other hand, given the stressful state of too many students in today’s colleges and universities, it is often easier for them to tweet than to militate. “Here at Berkeley of all places we walk to and from classes, sit in our lounges doing homework, and generally carry with life as usual,” said Rachael Cornejo, a student in Peter Sahlins’ Berkeley teach-in class. “It puzzles me that so many bright and ambitious students show so little inclination to take action to shape America according to their ideals.”

If this is not your grandfather’s teach-in movement, neither is it your grandfather’s university. Much has been written about the so-called “corporatization” of higher education, turning the schools into business enterprises and the students into consumers—many of whom, given the high cost of tuition, are being habituated to spending far beyond their means. At the same time that the schools have increased the amounts they charge students, they have lowered the cost and quality of instruction by radically cutting the percentage of tenured and tenurable professors by nearly half since the 1970s; instead, they employ a growing host of graduate teaching assistants and part-time adjunct faculty at substandard wages and benefits. Non-tenure track teachers earning an average of $22,041 annually now account for 76 percent of the instructional staff in American colleges and universities.

All the same, more than half the average operating budget of these educational institutions is marked for non-educational purposes. In the interest of competing with rival firms by offering a rich “college experience,” the universities invest heavily in five-star dormitories, gymnasiums and recreation centers with spa facilities, food courts, athletics, and other forms of what Thorstein Veblen, in a prescient critique of the enterprising university a century ago, called “politely blameless dissipation.” Another large toll on the operating budget is political as well as financial: the bloated bureaucracy of administrators and their staffs, who since the 1970s have increased at about four times the rate of the faculty, to take responsibility for the direction and surveillance of this hostile takeover of the marketplace of ideas.

Trained to treat education as a capital investment, the students’ businesslike orientation grows apace. Rachel Cornejo, the Berkeley student, asks, “If so many liberal college students hate Trump, why do they break their backs studying in order to enter the neoliberal world of which he is the emblem?” The question is surely pertinent insofar as three-quarters of all college students now come from the upper quarter of the economic scale, compared to only 3 percent from the lowest tenth. Moreover, a great number are majoring in capitalism: BA degrees achieved in business-related subjects presently outnumber degrees in the social sciences and humanities combined. In the 1960s and ’70s, the social sciences, the principal recruiting grounds for the protests of that era, were more popular than the business fields, as evidenced by a margin of approximately 155,500 bachelor degrees awarded in the former to 115,500 in the latter. By 2014, business degrees had increased to nearly 360,000, double the rate of growth in college enrollments; whereas degrees in the social sciences numbered about 174,000, which is to say that by comparison to neoliberalism, cultural liberalism is in relative decline.

Of all the academic changes that separate the student culture of today from the anti-establishment youth of the 1960s, the dramatic rise in tuition has been the most consequential. In 1971, the average tuition in public four-year colleges was $1,405 (including fees, room, and board); in 2016, it was $20,092; in private colleges, it was $2,979 then and $45,365 now. Measured in 2016 dollars, undergraduate tuition has increased four times faster than the cost of living since the early 1970s, and three to four times faster than the cost of instruction. Some 70 percent of college students now graduate into a condition of debt peonage.

The current debt on student loans in the United States is greater than the outstanding debt on credit cards. Some 44 million people are paying off a combined 1.3 trillion dollars owed on their education at an average rate of $351 a month–except for the 10 percent or so who are delinquent. The accompanying cost in mental stress is incalculable, although some studies claim it has risen in response to the burden of debt, even that it is responsible for an increase in suicides. Clearly, there has been a cultural loss. As David Graeber says, “There goes your music. There goes your culture. There goes everything that would pop out.” And one might add, there goes a lot of political energy.

By contrast to the countercultural rebels of the 1960s, the university student body in 2017 is in great part a bourgeoisie-in-training. The students acquire business skills in classes and upscale consumption habits in campus amenities—only then to acquire an indebtedness that puts them in precarious dependence on the wage system for many years to come.

The irony is that in large numbers the college-educated young of today are the exploited class that the jeans-clad rebels of the 1960s wanted to be. The triumphant neoliberal order that now invades the universities not only reorders them in its own image—the image of a corporation, as in the 1960s it was the national-security state—but it also finds in the student body a source of mega-profits. By the millions, educated young people become victims of the dominant business class, and in particular of its financial sector. Notice that when Bernie Sanders pointed that out, the young came out in force.

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