Remembering 1968

After 40 years, the year 1968 still brings to mind elite students, major universities, rebellion, the delegitimation of traditional authorities, cultural upheaval, the lifestyle revolution, marches for civil rights, anti-war protests, the drug culture, flower children, feminism, the search for personal meaning, and a last youthful gasp of the Marxist imagination. The year 1968 served a very spicy moral goulash--but where did all these seemingly disparate ingredients come from? And why did they emerge with such force at that particular time? From my own experience of the 1960s, I would like to describe some of the arguments and insights that led a portion of the students I taught at Stanford to cast their lots with the "youth movement." They did not seem especially predisposed to do so; many of these soon-to-be radicals were unusually industrious in fulfilling their classroom duties, good-hearted, well brought up, and eager to participate in community service. During the presidential election of 1964, 51 percent of Stanford undergraduates described themselves as conservatives, and the Stanford Daily endorsed Barry Goldwater.

So, from the first, their choices were freighted with ambivalence. A few took actions that destroyed their future prospects, even their lives; yet for others the Sixties were a liberating and humanizing experience that set them on paths they still find fulfilling today. To clarify the tangle of motives that led so many to join the youth movement, I want to propose a distinction between the movement as a whole (which, given enough time, went badly) and the widely varying personal journeys of some of its participants.

In the oft-derided cant phrases of the day, many in the 1960s sought to "seek their own identity" and "find themselves." Had these vacuous slogans been replaced with the Socratic dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living," this quest for identity might have received, not instant mockery, but some degree of respect. The quest was a starting point for millions of American youths, and understanding why the question "Who am I?" became especially insistent during the years 1964-68 is essential to understanding that turbulent era. Nowadays as then, universities are doing everything they can to block that question from being raised, and to maintain a sort of institutional repression.

Early Stirrings

In August of 1965, my wife and I, expecting our first child, drove out to Palo Alto, Calif., where my first professional position was waiting. I would be an assistant professor in a new religion department, the first Catholic in that field in Stanford's distinguished history. During the three years we were there, approximately 300 students per quarter attended my classes (usually in one large lecture class and one small specialized class)--that is, almost a thousand students per year, a good proportion of the undergraduate student body.

The youth movement reached Stanford more slowly, and at first more humanistically and democratically, than it did at many other campuses, notably nearby Berkeley. It first made its presence known in the spring of 1966, when students elected the most radical student-body president in the school's history--David Harris, later the husband of the folk singer Joan Baez. Harris had campaigned as a "humanistic" radical, meeting with students in every campus dormitory and many fraternity and sorority houses for long, relaxed conversations and easygoing late-night arguments about the near future of the university and the nation. For some students, this process provided a superb self-education. For others, as happened often in those years, early probings drifted more and more into angry activism.

"Rap sessions" like these were a constant feature of the era, and as I wrote at the time, the student conversations of the 1960s were characterized by three basic weaknesses: Too little consciousness of the irony, tragedy, and irrepressible sinfulness of human affairs; an unrealistic appraisal of the proper role of power and self-interest in all human institutions; and a strong tendency toward rosy, gauzy hope in "progress," including utopian fantasies about "new" types of human societies. These three weaknesses combined to guarantee, sooner or later, tragic outcomes.

Still, a constituent element of irony and tragedy is self-consciousness about good intentions, along with a false sense of personal innocence. These flaws are typical of the young, who so easily dwell unforgivingly on the faults, failings, and all-too-visible sins of their parents, their elders, and all the institutions that they have grown up in.

Most of my students at Stanford during 1965-68 had been born just after World War II, into the greatest period of prosperity the world had ever experienced. Their parents had grown up during the Depression, and their grandparents had memories of the First World War and the hard, rugged life of a predominantly rural America. The families of these students did everything possible to make the life of the generation of the 1960s more comfortable than their own had been. No previous generation in history had been as cosseted as the one that was coming of age in 1968.

No wonder my students felt so potent, so favored by the whole universe, and so singularly virtuous. Among other things, they were receiving the education that so many of their parents and grandparents had gone without. In the United States, a new university was founded, on average, every two weeks from 1945 to 1972. Never had so many twentysomethings been enrolled in college anywhere on earth. Never had there been so many young professors, well-trained but quite unseasoned.

The older generation had learned from the dictators of the two World Wars the dangers of authoritarianism, and they often warned their children against passive, uncritical obedience. In addition, for fear of appearing to be "dictators" in their own homes, many parents were deliberately lax in applying the sort of discipline under which, as youths, they had chafed.

Developments in the nation and the world reinforced an emerging sense of worldwide freedom and possibility. New hopes and horizons had dramatically emerged from the election of the young John F. Kennedy as president in 1960. Between 1962 and 1965, the most unchanging institution of the West, the Catholic Church, had launched at the Second Vatican Council a more open and searching "aggiornamento" than any other institution on earth. The civil-rights movement, after first drawing national attention in the mid-1950s, had continued to gain strength, and by 1964 had wrested a path-breaking Civil Rights Act from the government. In effect, the United States had convicted itself of hypocrisy and set out to rectify it, first legally and then in the practices of everyday life. One older European journalist told me at the time that the American reforms in civil rights during the 1960s were the deepest and most moving social transformation she had ever witnessed.

From these events, dominant mantras emerged. The first, with so many areas of life undergoing revolution, was "The times they are a-changin'." Everything seemed new and fresh; everything seemed promising; the force of change seemed unstoppable. Second: "Don't trust anyone over 30." The leading figures of their time were confessing the nation's long history of hypocrisy with respect to blacks. What other hypocrisies remained to be exposed? Third: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Students who had spent their summers registering voters and organizing protests in Mississippi and Alabama came back to their campuses much moved by the poverty, violence, and sheer meanness that they had encountered. They were surprised that many of their own professors--and university administrators--were not as alarmed as they were; their elders were preoccupied with expanding their universities to accommodate far higher numbers of students than ever before, and to elbow their way into greater national prestige.

Roots of Rebellion

The academic profession reinforced this appearance of disengagement with its supine response to the misnamed Free Speech Movement, which began across the bay from Palo Alto at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964. Many kinds of political activity, such as students promoting non-university events or organizing on behalf of campaigns, were prohibited on campus, but much of the controversy and student anger involved a nearby piece of land, at the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue, that was owned by the university. When police attempted to enforce the ban there in October 1964, students responded with sit-ins and other protests that eventually disrupted the university in December.

The very idea of a university rests on the principle that professors have superior wisdom to convey to their far less knowledgeable students, yet the Berkeley faculty, intimidated by menacing students, caved in to the demonstrators' extortion. Any moral or intellectual standing that professors might have had in the eyes of students was dashed to the ground. Similar craven surrenders occurred at some 300 other campuses over the next few years.

Then came the shock of Vietnam, which thrust a bitter choice upon privileged young men. University students were entitled to defer military service while pursuing their education, but for juniors and seniors, graduation was scarily imminent. In 1968 some common occupational exemptions and graduate-school deferments were taken away, making more young men subject to the draft. Resistance to the war grew in bitterness, even though the active resisters still made up only a minority of university students.

The college generation of 1968 had been taught by their parents that they were special and, as they grew older, would excel in national leadership. They were often described as the best-educated young people ever. Many young men imagined themselves perishing in the jungles of distant Vietnam before the dreams of their parents had been fulfilled--an indescribable waste. A small but increasing number began to burn their draft cards in defiance, declaring themselves conscientious objectors (even though many could not claim that they belonged to any "peace church").

Another factor was the event said to have ignited "the Sixties," the Kennedy assassination, which was shocking at the time but whose aftermath may have had even greater effects. Most of my students at Stanford had been 15 or 16 years old on November 22, 1963, when the young and vigorous John F. Kennedy was shot and killed as he rode in an open convertible in Dallas, Texas. The assassin turned out to be a Communist who had lived for a time in Moscow, was married to a Russian woman, and just before November 22 had made contact with the Cuban embassy during a trip to Mexico City.

These revelations boggled the left-wing mind; it could not tolerate the idea. In response, liberals went searching for "conspiracies"--right-wing conspiracies. They ended up implicating the CIA, the FBI, President Lyndon Johnson, and even the Warren Commission in both the killing itself and the imagined cover-up. For a political movement whose aim was an ever larger and more comprehensive welfare state, it was radically incoherent to teach people to distrust the government. In this sense, the American Left set the stage for the return of the party of limited government to political power.

But the roots of 1968 stretch back even farther. I had seen signs back in 1960, when I began graduate studies in the philosophy of religion at Harvard. At that time, most universities hewed closely to an ideology that was publicly described as liberal, pragmatic, realistic, and deliberately concentrated on the "descriptive," rather than the normative. Propositions deemed to be "normative" were assigned to a realm beyond the bounds of science, pragmatism, and practicality.

Students and faculty began to rebel against the kind of "political science" that depended almost solely on statistical surveys and mathematical equations--a discipline whose guiding principle seemed to be, "Unless you can put a number on it, it doesn't exist." Some professors rejected this thin gruel and led a recovery of the classical tradition of "political philosophy." The main carriers of this corrective initiative were the students of Leo Strauss ("the Straussians"--Allan Bloom, Walter Berns, Harvey Mansfield, Harry Jaffa, and many others) at the University of Chicago. They tried to think philosophically and critically about fundamental political principles, shining the light of centuries of Western wisdom on the subject. An associated movement was the renaissance of contemporary Thomistic studies, as represented by the very good quarterly at Notre Dame, The Review of Politics.

Yet the spirit of "just the facts" remained ascendant, and many students in the 1960s felt themselves choking in a miasma of materialism, logic, and technological regimentation. At the same time as the human element dwindled in their curricula, ever-increasing enrollment made their universities even more impersonal. Face-to-face contact with administrators was minimal. The most visible administrative communication arrived on computer cards marked: "Do not bend, fold, mutilate, or spindle." No one seemed interested in who the students were, or what their fears were. Almost no one spoke to their consciences. They were, they felt, not being awakened to larger questions, but processed; treated not as persons, but as things.

Thus, the campus turmoil of the 1960s was not a reaction against professors and administrators who refused to change; it was a reaction against the dispiriting changes they had made. What looked like a student rebellion against tradition, history, and the humanistic wisdom of the past was actually an instinctual revolt against an arid professoriate given to impersonal, "objective," "descriptive" discourse of the sort found in directions for assembling office equipment. Students were often confused about where to find true wisdom and how to distinguish it from the passing academic fashions just beginning to appear, such as Paul de Man's "deconstructionism" and the nebulous concept of "postmodernism." When their classwork only deepened the confusion, they began to look elsewhere for answers.

The Movement Hits the Streets

The San Francisco Bay area was an early hot spot of the youth revolution; many of the ugliest trends of the 1960s began there. The first thing that struck me when I arrived from the East Coast in 1965 was that "the movement" seemed divided into two wings, which I in amusement thought of as "contemplative orders" and "activist orders." In the streets one could already see lots of long beards on men wearing loose-fitting clothes and sandals, many of them with a kind of dreamy, meditative look on their otherwise hard faces. Many of the women had long, stringy hair and plain black or dark-colored dresses cinctured at their waists. The scent of marijuana was in the air, and in cafés, people whiled away the long afternoons sipping sangria.

On one level everything seemed safe enough, but not far below the surface was a mood of anger and menace. These folks were not just dissenting and dropping out; they were learning to hate the bourgeoisie that had bred them and the Establishment that looked down upon them.

As the anti-war movement grew, "flower children" began handing out daisies, irises, and other cheap cuttings to passers-by. Then came the peace medallions on black cords around the neck, tie-dyed T-shirts, arm tattoos, and peace posters in the windows. (My friends still tease me about the photograph on the back of my book A Theology for Radical Politics, which shows me in Boston in 1967 with long sideburns, a turtleneck, and beads--perhaps the first such costume seen or to appear in the Hub of the Universe. Those who saw it thought, not admiringly, that I had "gone California.") San Francisco, like other cities, saw burnings of draft cards in front of cheering, menacing crowds of young people. Becoming more common in 1968 and especially 1969 were large "peace marches," with plenty of noise on some occasions and a double-meaning silence on others--half flower-childish gesture, half "revolution" and "power to the people." On occasion these degenerated into clashes with police in riot gear, who sometimes fought back with tear gas.

Three important dynamos of energy developed out of this subculture. First were the concerted efforts at learning how to "organize," "mobilize," and stage "happenings" and "street theater" in order to "radicalize" new recruits. These efforts became steadily more thuggish and violent over the years, as organizers learned how intimidating the mere threat of violence could be, especially on college campuses led by "reasonable," peace-preferring, conflict-avoiding deans and presidents, mostly liberal Protestants. Confronted with loud expressions of anger and the possibility of mayhem, such rational liberals in positions of authority preferred negotiation, which inevitably meant surrender. This habit won them, not respect, but heightened contempt. "Up against the wall, m-----f----r!" became an acting-out of male bravado and aggression toward authorities who had previously made young men afraid.

Second was the rebirth of feminism. The first women to join the revolution were expected to let themselves be bedded with little ceremony, to act as secretaries at meetings where men presided, to cook, and otherwise to be subservient. At first, some women took well to the open eroticism, free love, and sexual exploration to which they were introduced. But soon anger set in, and many radical women began to lash out at "male chauvinist pigs," "troglodytes," and "oppressors." Like college presidents confronted by protesters, delicate left-wing males soon learned to give in to whatever outlandish demands were made upon them by feminists. In some cases, feminist "consciousness raising" led to experiments in lesbianism and the outright rejection of men.

Third was a flirtation with what we would now call terrorism, along with talk of open warfare against the "pigs"--local police and even (as at Kent State) the National Guard. Bombings of electrical towers, ROTC buildings, scientific laboratories, and other vulnerable targets began to occur--most shockingly, at the Capitol Building, the Pentagon, and a major New York City police station. For a while the radicals got away with their experiments in violence, and because of this, it took the young an unusually long time to understand that the City of Man, as St. Augustine pointed out long ago, is built on the power to put down insurrection and impose the peace. Such honest thinking about the civilizing uses of force had always been difficult for a liberal-Protestant nation to absorb, and the new radicals had to learn the hard way about their weakness in the face of determined state power. More than one writer observed at the time that radicals almost never tried violence against conservative authority figures, who were unashamed of the legitimate use of force. They saved their wrath for liberals--and sometimes their own parents (who had been so generous to them).

Second Thoughts and Aftereffects

The "morning after" of the 1960s began while night was still falling, with educations prematurely ruptured to the detriment of later careers, ugly breaks from parents and families, precipitately dissolved relationships with close friends, lovers, or spouses, imprisonments that broke spirits, and simply the "lostness" of having wandered away from one's old life without moral gyroscopes and traditional networks of meaning. This last was indeed an ironic end to the "search for meaning" that lay at the heart of so many rationalizations for joining the "revolution."

But there was also another rationalization, at least among the males. Since we might soon be dying in the jungles of Vietnam, they thought, why not take wild risks at home? Young men experimented with dangerous drugs, took reckless motorcycle drives, drank prodigiously, taunted officers of the law, made occasional forays into criminality (in protest against the evils of the regime, of course), and thus jeopardized any chance they may have had of a life regulated by self-government. A great many perished along the way, and even those who survived inflicted much heartbreak on those closest to them. "Existential decisions" was a term one heard often in those days. Young men had a sense of holding their life in their hands and casting a fateful die. The iconic movie of the time was Bonnie and Clyde.

On questions like these, the yawning gap in the education offered by the universities of that time amounted to an administrative and professorial betrayal. The excessive esteem that academic authorities lavished on "science" and "pragmatism" and "technocracy," combined with their forgetfulness of the deeper wisdom of the ancients, reflected post-war hubris. Their training and experience had left them utterly incompetent in making convincing moral arguments for the way they lived, conducted their affairs, and shaped the culture of the university. They simply were not accustomed to thinking in such terms. Against accusations from discontented students, they could not defend themselves even to their own satisfaction. That is why they gave in so easily at moments of confrontation.

It cannot be denied that some of the poisonous ideas that today dominate the Left have their origins in the 1960s. Moreover, the lockstep in which many on the left prefer to march, isolated from other points of view, has made them particularly vulnerable to unworkable ideas, and positively allergic to those discomfiting facts that would show that their fundamental narratives--especially those about economics, politics, and culture--are ill-matched to human nature and history.

In a delicious irony, this lack of realism in the cultural revolution of the 1960s led, by reaction, to the birth of what is now called in politics and economics "the center Right." It also led to a deepened appreciation for the wisdom of our ancestors, and for modes of philosophical and moral thinking that complement what we know from science. Science makes a marvelous servant of humanity, but a very poor master.

In short, the inadequacies of the energetic and once-promising 1960s have triggered a renewed pursuit of that well-ordered human City our forebears named Sophia, "wisdom." It is a City well aware of human sin and weakness, of tragedy and irony, and of the perennial case, Humility v. Hubris.

Published in National Review Online May 5, 2008