Education in America: 10. Revolt on Campus
JULY 01, 1969 by GEORGE CHARLES ROCHE III
Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American education.
No occurrence in contemporary society has attracted more attention than the turmoil in our colleges and universities. The uproar has been accompanied by a rash of hand-wringing and soul-searching; education, the shibboleth of modern America, seems to be disintegrating. When the answer to all problems itself becomes a problem, where does one turn?
For a start, we might examine the psychology of the leadership likely to arise in a revolutionary atmosphere. If we can understand the motivation behind a movement, we should be well on the way to understanding the movement itself. Who is likely to be in the vanguard of an attempt to remake society?
A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.
This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.¹
Those who are successful in the affairs of this world tend to be attuned to the reality of life as it is, thus disqualifying themselves for visionary leadership. Conversely, in Eric Hoffer’s words, "Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs…. [Some men] when suffering defeat in the practical world do not feel crushed but are suddenly fired with the apparently absurd conviction that they are eminently competent to direct the fortunes of the community and the nation."²
Do the outpourings of a Mario Savio represent the pursuit of power as a means of personal fulfillment? Could the romance of revolution at least partially be explained as an escape from a sense of personal inadequacy? Does the constant escalation of radical student "demands" suggest that men run farthest and fastest when they run from themselves?
When men or nations get tired of dodging fundamental questions in a multitude of distractions, they turn to a search for something else that will, so they suppose, give them the sense of significance which they know they lack. This does not necessarily mean, however, that in sophistication they learn wisdom. If they remain adolescent in their approach to life they are frequently tempted to seek meaning for themselves and for their nation in terms of coercive power. They develop a Messianic complex. They seek to live other people’s lives for them, ostensibly for the good of those other people but really in the hope of fulfilling themselves. They set out to attain greatness by imposing their supposedly superior understanding upon some man or nation who is less perceptive.³
Irving Babbitt perceived long before most men that modern education was moving down a dangerous path. He noted some 40 years ago that in response to a questionnaire a majority of women’s college graduates had rated love of humanity a higher virtue than self-control. Commenting that such a view of human nature might be pardonable in a young woman just out of college, he asked, "What are we to think of our present leaders of public opinion who apparently hold a similar view? Let a man first show that he can act on himself, there will then be time enough for him to act on other men and on the world."4
The lapse of self-control in favor of the "humanitarian" view of life partially explains how the dreamer of utopian schemes menaces civilization. While all such revolutionaries share a willingness to destroy the existing order, their ideas of what should be erected in its place tend to vary from vision to vision, reflecting not merely a pipe dream untouched by reality, but a series of pipe dreams as unstable as the personality of the dreamer. Once self-control is abandoned and reality rejected, all that remains are half-formed, bizarre visions of typically unfulfilled revolutionary personalities. Such fuzziness in goals, such lack of personal fulfillment within the existing order, are both evident in the rhetoric of the New Left.
However fuzzy the goals of the New Left may be as to detail, these revolutionaries always envision a future in which the collectivity is endowed with unlimited sovereignty over the individual, all in the name of "social utility." For all the discussion of "freedom," today’s campus radicals are quite willing to apply massed force and harassment to intimidate anyone with the temerity to hold opposing views.
They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. Actually their innermost desire is for an end to the "free for all." They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.5
This distrust of freedom, this unwillingness to allow others the free expression of their ideas, is woven into the fabric of modern intellectual life. One would be hard put to remember a time in American history when intellectuals were less tolerant than now of one another’s ideas. Denunciation, not debate, seems the order of the day. As the Chancellor of the New School, Dr. Harry Gideonse, has remarked, "A few short years ago, anti-intellectualism was an epithet of derogation. Today it is an expression of revolutionary virility." Perhaps part of the reason why so many professors have accepted the violent and abusive tactics of the New Left is that such a revolutionary situation offers disgruntled academic oldsters a vicarious opportunity to play the man of action.
The Hard-core Campus Radical
The campus radicals of the New Left pose a mass of contradictions: peace-loving advocates of mob violence; freedom-loving seekers after power; the first to cry "brutality" at any attempted defense against their aggressions. The radicals in question are not in university residence to learn—they are there to instruct the university and society. Their qualification? Judging from the public statements of their leadership, to be qualified one must know almost nothing of history, philosophy, economics, or political theory, must have a literary background deeply steeped in James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, and other purveyors of the four-letter word, and must be constitutionally unable to construct intelligible English prose.
Many observers have remarked upon the strong resemblance between the militant students advocating a new order in Hitler’s Germany and the militant students who form the hard core of the New Left. Both have relied upon the demonstration, the use of massed force; both have insisted that "talk" must end, that "action" be the order of the day. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that the New Left is not really so new. Professor Brzezinski of Columbia University views the current student rebel as essentially counterrevolutionary—i.e., dedicated to the preservation of a dying order. If so, the New Left can be described as the frenzied expression of a "Liberal" intellectual bankruptcy carried to its logical conclusion.
A substantial minority of faculty members lend their support to the New Left disruption of the campus. The professorial pleas for amnesty, the faculty insistence that the rioting students "have a case," is a reflection of the enmity which many academy spokesmen have borne for our essentially free and capitalist-oriented society. Recalling that enmity, that vested interest in the destruction of the old order shared by the Old Left and the New Left, we can discover new meaning in much of the current faculty permissiveness toward the New Left disruptions. We should remember that it was the chairman of the faculty executive committee at Columbia who supported Mark Rudd, among others, with the criticism that the school was run "like a seventeenth or eighteenth century private university." (One wonders exactly what is wrong with that. Perhaps the vestiges of academic and disciplinary standards were his grounds for complaint.)
Rejection of the Old Left
However sympathetic the Old Left may be to the antics of the New Left, agreeing in principle and only criticizing the method, it is far from clear that the New Left returns the affection. The ideas of the current campus radicals were formed in the classrooms of Old Left professors, but now it seems that the Old Left itself has been swept over in the rush toward nihilism and destruction.
The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions recently invited a group of student radicals to Santa Barbara to conduct a "dialogue" on "Students and Society," apparently expecting that an exchange of ideas would reveal grounds for mutual respect and cooperation. However much the Senior Fellows of the Center may have respected their younger partners in the "dialogue," the resultant discussion suggests that the students had something far more radical in mind than did the professors. As one student remarked toward the close of the three-day conference:
I’m not as angry about what went on as Levine [another student participant] is because when I came here I thought it’d be a lot like going into my grandfather’s house. I expected to meet a lot of nice old people who are very interested in what the young are doing and I expected them to tell us that we have a lot of youthful enthusiasm and that that is good, but that there ain’t going to be no revolution because when I was 15 years old I said the same thing and there weren’t no revolution then and there’s going to be no revolution now.
But there is going to be a revolution. I don’t know whether you are going to live to see it or not—I hope that you don’t, because I don’t think you are ready for it. You hope that conscience is built into the existing society, because you can’t possibly envision any other kind. I hate to get into this bag of saying that everybody can’t understand, but I think it’s really true that after the age of 50 you are lost. You people really are far, far out of it—so far that every one of us has had to go on to points in the discussions we had five years ago, just to bring you people up to where we are today. You’ve been sitting in this really groovy place called the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and you don’t know what’s going on in the world. I don’t think you’ll ever understand. I didn’t come here to talk to you, though I’m willing to put up with this session. I came here to talk to the other students, because that’s where it’s at.6
The New Left seems to reject dependence upon "dialogue." As one student at the conference urged:
I think we must locate a medium between dialogue and revolution. That medium is disruption. Disruption is the one thing our society can’t abide. Our institutions are all interrelated, and if one institution is sabotaged, the society can’t function properly as a whole. The institution students are connected with is the university. If I may be permitted a ridiculous metaphor, the university is a kind of distributor cap that students can remove from the engine of our society.7
Disruption and destruction of the existing system seem the new order of the day. The Berkeley Barb, a New Left organ in California, typifies such sentiment:
The universities cannot be reformed. They must be abandoned or closed down. They should be used as bases for actions against society, but never taken seriously. The professors have nothing to teach…. We can learn more from any jail than we can from any university.
Like most revolutionary appeals, the New Left stresses its interest in the common needs of all students, urging student unity; but in practice that appeal quickly degenerates into "Be my brother or I’ll kill you," providing us with a more accurate measure of New Left values. Meanwhile, the provocations and the "kicks" go on. The attempt to provoke society becomes not merely the means, but the end as well. So long as these provocateurs remain a comparatively small minority on campus, a deliberately disruptive group totally disinterested in education and determined to deny that education to the majority, there is a means of solving that problem. The solution was provided long ago in a letter written by St. Benedict8 to instruct his monks in the proper operation of a monastery:
If any pilgrim monk come from distant parts, if with wish as a guest to dwell in the monastery, and will be content with the customs which he finds in the place, and do not by his lavishness disturb the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds, he shall be received, for as long a time as he desires. If, indeed he find fault with anything, or expose it, reasonably, and with the humility of charity, the Abbot shall discuss it prudently, lest perchance God had sent him for this very thing…. But, if he have been found gossipy and contumacious in the time of his sojourn as guest, not only ought he not to be joined to the body of the monastery, but also it shall be said to him, honestly, that he must depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him.
What about the Majority?
A troublesome point remains. Isn’t it true that far more students seem disaffected with higher education than the small group of admittedly New Left radicals? Are all these masses of students actual or potential members of a student revolt dedicated to the disruption of our colleges and universities? The answer to both questions is "yes." Unless we are willing to take a long, hard look at American higher education, we may expect the numbers of disaffected students to continue their growth.
While most American college youths are far more interested in education than in destruction, they do feel betrayed by an educational structure which has become increasingly unresponsive to their academic needs and oppressive to their development as responsible adult individuals. It is this large group of disaffected students that forms the reservoir of discontent exploited by the New Left.
The student attending college for the first time has (or should have) some idea of what a college education is supposed to provide. Most serious students are likely to expect intellectual discipline and high standards, not to mention a close working relationship between teacher and pupil. For the student, these disciplines, standards, and relationships presumably will provide the development of individual capacity and judgment, making for a well-formed and uniquely individual personality. So much for the expectations of the serious student; the realities are often painfully different.
A Bureaucratic Merry-Go-Round
The uses of the multiversity for fund-raising, for the aggrandizement of administration and faculty, and for mass student indoctrination, all militate against proper education for the individual. Today a college education is automatic (and often meaningless). Insert a six-year-old in the educational mill and sixteen years later he is a college graduate, whether or not he has learned anything of lasting value or has matured into a unique and self-reliant personality. Such an overinstitutionalized and de-individualized system becomes primarily custodial in nature. Often this custodial function is highly paternal, but that very paternalism becomes the greatest despotism of all. The bureaucracy necessitated by such overinstitutionalized education becomes self-perpetuating, and steadily less devoted to the functions of genuine education.
While such a bureaucracy can no longer educate, it lends itself admirably well to social engineering, to turning out technically proficient automatons ideally suited to running "the system" without questioning its values. This is one of the valid complaints our students have. One of the bits of doggerel of the Berkeley uprising, to be sung to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, went as follows:
From the tip of San Diego, to the top of Berkeley’s hills; We have built a mighty factory, to impart our social skills Social engineering triumph, managers of every kind. Let us all with drills and homework Manufacture human minds!
Thus, a moulding process is often substituted for an educational process. The students who are caught in the gears of the multiversity are to be excused for the feeling that the individual is powerless to change his environment. And, if the individual no longer matters, perhaps massive action, action designed to disrupt the workings of the existing system, is the only answer.
Increasing Concern among Youth over Social Problems
A related problem centers on the fact that many of our young people are more concerned than previous generations to know the "reason why," to examine the moral premises of our society. Perhaps they hunger for this because our present educational structure offers them so few values and principles on which to build their lives. Whatever the reason, the student with this concern for moral issues often finds himself in the company of professors for whom the morality of the existing power structure is a matter of little or no interest.
When the student does find a professor who is at least willing to discuss ultimate moral questions, such a professor all too often proves to be an activist who foments just the sort of campus revolt advocated by the New Left. A professor at Berkeley described the faculty-student relationship at the time of the 1964 Free Speech Movement:
… So far as I was able to judge, the vast majority of the undergraduates did their best to follow the confused and changing lead of their professors.9
Thus, the riots have often epitomized the breakdown in traditional values, a breakdown deliberately induced by some faculty members. Could it be that our society’s unwillingness to honor our own traditions is undercutting our young people’s capacity to honor anything? If so, we should not be surprised when more and more of our youth no longer wish to play the game.
Much of our present structure of higher education offers the spectacle of teachers unwilling to teach, operating within an over-institutionalized educational structure which smothers the individual student. The system, for all its size and power, so lacks inner values that it is often unable to act even in self-defense when assaulted by New Left revolutionaries from within. Surely such a system has little claim to the loyalties of the majority of sincere students who come to college to get an education!
Perhaps the New Left minority and the disaffected student majority are but different symptoms of the same disease. Perhaps they are all young people who in varying degrees are being robbed of their personalities and their core of civilizing values by a morally bankrupt educational structure badly in need of revision.
The next article of this series will discuss "Creativity."
¹ Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, p.23.
2 Ibid., p. 74.
3 Bernard Iddings Bell, Crisis in Education, p. 20.
4 Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College, p. 47.
5 Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, p.37.
6 Students and Society, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, p. 61.
7 Ibid., p. 43.
8 Much of the same advice is also given by St. Benedict in Chapter 61 of his Rule for Monasteries.
9 William Peterson, "What’s Lost at Berkeley," Columbia University Forum (Spring, 1965), p. 39.
The Youth Movement
In the decade preceding the First World War, Germany, the country most advanced on the path toward bureaucratic regimentation, witnessed the appearance of a phenomenon hitherto unheard of: the youth movement. Turbulent gangs of untidy boys and girls roamed the country, making much noise and shirking their school lessons. In bombastic words they announced the gospel of a golden age. All preceding generations, they emphasized, were simply idiotic; their incapacity has converted the earth into a hell. But the rising generation is no longer willing to endure gerontocracy, the supremacy of impotent and imbecile senility. Henceforth the brilliant youths will rule. They will destroy everything that is old and useless, they will reject all that was dear to their parents, they will substitute new real and substantial values and ideologies for the antiquated and false ones of capitalist and bourgeois civilization, and they will build a new society of giants and supermen.
LUDWIG VON MISES, Bureaucracy