This spring is the 40th anniversary of the Harvard strike, one of the iconic moments of 1960s student protest, but — strangely — the only notice thus far has been in the "Opinion/Taste" pages of the Wall Street Journal.
They’re still against it.
The strikers – I was one of them (as a grad student) — demanded an end to university complicity in the war (kicking ROTC off campus); an end to evictions of working-class people from property the university wanted to develop; and the creation of a black studies program.
In what became a familiar scenario, university administrators were intransigent, students from SDS occupied the administration building, the university called the cops, the cops beat everybody in Harvard Yard they could get their hands on, and 10,000 students met in the stadium to declare a strike.
"Strike to become more human," said the famous poster with the red fist. "Strike to abolish ROTC / strike because they are trying to squeeze the life out of you / Strike."
Among the student leaders: Katha Pollitt and Michael Kazin, both of whom now write for The Nation.
The Wall Street Journal piece, written by Anthony Paletta of the Manhattan Institute’s website MindingtheCampus.com, focused on arguments in an underground newspaper, the Old Mole — whose name came from Karl Marx: "our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to burrow underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution!"
The Old Mole (I was a hard-working member of the collective) published secret Harvard documents removed from the president’s office during the building occupation — under the triumphant title "Reading the Mail of the Ruling Class." The material documented the university’s ties to the CIA and the military establishment, and, more important at that moment, highlighted the split between the administration and the faculty over the student demands.
The mainstream media, led by the New York Times, denounced the Old Mole as "lawless" for publishing the purloined documents. But two years later the New York Times itself published a different set of purloined documents – they called them "the Pentagon Papers" – and went all the way to the Supreme Court defending its right to do so.
The new Wall Street Journal piece quotes the Old Mole criticizing liberal education because it taught the Harvard student to "fit comfortably and fully into a world whose basic assumptions he has neither inclination or training to challenge." (As the Journal notes, I wrote those words in 1969 — and I salute their researchers for finding this piece!)
The Journal argues that the student radicals’ critique of the 1969 curriculum has "become academic doctrine" today.
That’s basically true. The liberal arts curriculum today is much more organized around developing critical skills than it was 40 years ago. African-American studies is a well-established discipline. And ROTC is no longer considered an academic field. The university is a better place as a result.
On the other hand, Harvard’s role in helping students "fit comfortably" into existing institutions has not been transformed. As recently as 2007, a Harvard Crimson poll found that 58 per cent of graduating Harvard men who were entering the workforce were going into investment banking and related fields.
No doubt that is changing this year.
But the greatest evidence of the success of 1960s student protest can be found today in Barack Obama. As Tom Hayden argues in his forthcoming book The Long Sixties, "Obama would not be possible without the Sixties." He would not have been conceived without the changing mores on interracial marriage; he would not have been a candidate without the civil rights movement push for voting rights laws; and he would not have been elected without "a new social movement that applied participatory democracy online and door to door."