This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Excerpted from the May 27, 1961 Issue
The employers will love this generation, they are not going to press many grievances…. They are going to be easy to handle. There aren’t going to be any riots.” Buried somewhere in a 1959 publication of the American Council on Education reporting a conference on the college student, this prophecy by Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, today has a curiously outdated ring. A few scattered signposts on a number of campuses, including his own, might even then have suggested a qualification of this flat judgment; in any event, shortly before Commencement of the following year, Bay Area newspapers exploded with the news, STUDENTS RIOT AT HOUSE UN-AMERICAN COMMITTEE HEARING. Of the fourteen hospitalized and sixty-odd arrested that day and the thousands who subsequently demonstrated against the committee, the majority were from the Berkeley campus.
In the welter of charges and countercharges, praise and censure that followed, one fact emerged: the current crop of students had gone far to shake the label of apathy and conformity that had stuck through the fifties.
In 1950, the year of the University of California loyalty oath, 5,000 undergraduate signatures were obtained in support of the non-signing professors. The head of steam that was generated over this issue was dissipated not so much by “student apathy” as by the capitulation of their elders. A professor vowed to a meeting of students that never, as long as he lived, would he sign the despicable oath—or any similar oath; the following week he meekly threw in the sponge and signed. Leonard Wolf of San Francisco State College, who was an undergraduate at the time, recalls: “The university suffered generally from a clobbered feeling. The apathy came down from above. As somebody said of the faculty and students of those days, ‘It was a case of the bland leading the bland.’”
Students today are not so much political as moral. They are for the simple, liberal issues—free speech, civil rights, ending the nuclear threat. They intend to provide their own leadership, and they look with jaundiced eye on most adult organizations: political parties, which they see as riddled with opportunism; the labor movement, which they consider badly compromised; the remnants of left-wing organizations, which they consider hide-bound, restrictive of thought, and prone to pat solutions.
Their mood is one of indignation and muscle flexing. There is a desire to become re-connected with society and to play an influential part in shaping the future of the world. It is unlikely that those students who have espoused new causes, and have begun to taste the sweet fruits of success in their efforts, will subside into silence.
Jessica Mitford (1917–1996) was the author of The American Way of Death (1963), an exposé of the funeral industry, and the memoir The Making of a Muckraker (1979).