The American rioters of the sixties – as witnessed by a British WW-II vet

wagnerFinleyAmerican campuses were in constant uproar during the late sixties.  Now they are calm again, but they are very different places than they used to be.  For instance, we  have “speech codes” that limit speech on campus that anyone can express off campus, we also have speakers prevented from speaking at campuses because their message might be hurtful to some group.  The costs of education have gone up, even as what is learned has been sadly compromised.  Often students must pay off debt for much of their working lives, and the payoff of the education is uncertain.   The liberal arts have become politicized as a glum history of repression by gender or race.

How did the massive change in the culture and the colleges come about?

Lets delve into two books describing what occurred in the heyday of the student “uprisings,” events that have been conveniently blurred, if not forgotten.

At the City College of New York, a young professor from Britain, who had studied in Oxford, fought in a tank in the North African desert against the Nazis, and ended up at City College, wrote a book called “The End of Education“, and another professor there – also a veteran of World War II, wrote a book titled “The Death of the American University”. Obviously these two men weren’t happy with the protests – protests against the Vietnam war, or against Capitalism or against racism–though the Englishman, Geoffrey Wagner, had come to oppose the Vietnam war earlier than most people.

Wagner writes:

“In the days of the worst City College riots, I recall reporting for nonexistent classes, pushing past the hate-filled faces screaming and yelling under sundry placards at the college gates…and wondering what the new Nonnegotiable Demand today was to be and whether that was Lionel Trilling hanging in effigy by the Student Center…Then I looked back at the platoons of gum-chewing cops standing there in the rain, Fascist Nazi Imperialist Hyena Pigs and Decadent Running Dogs of U.S. Colonialism from Brooklyn and the Bronx and Harlem and the Lower East Side, standing there pot-bellied and patient and bored, waiting out the screaming hate and obscene signboards and contorted faces…hoping that today at least they might not be expectorated upon or urinated upon or kicked in the groin…or better, be spared having sulfuric acid thrown in their faces.”

Wagner adds: “When the notes I had painstakingly accumulated over decades were destroyed by students…I learned–the hard way–that these transgressors were not in the least interested in tolerant inquiry…”

Wagner does say that many students just wanted to learn, and resented that their ability to do so was constantly disrupted by protesters. He says that one black student, infuriated at not being able to study, actually broke into a building that had been seized by radicals.

The SDS (a leftist group) were getting nowhere in honest debate, so the hard-core “got busy with rocks and chairs through windows, and metal pipes and clubs on the campus outside…women were thrown down concrete stairs, fires started [these fires burned priceless building interiors] and the ER of nearby Knickerbocker Hospital looked like a Casualty Clearing Station of World War II….”Brave black boys were clubbing girls. At least three coeds in my own classes had to be escorted to Knickerbocker.”

Even after calm returned to City College, at the price of an open admissions policy (high school grades were no longer to be considered in admitting students) Wagner found teaching demoralizing.  He was given an instructors manual which suggested that he ask students for “ten heroes of American history.” So Wagner asked for that, as well as heroes of the world, and the students replies with lists of various radicals and a “host of obscure names who turned out to have killed policemen.”

Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler made the list.  A curious Geoffrey Wagner asked his students why.
“Hitler had worked for his beliefs,” I learned. “He had been successful–for his people“….’Well not quite,’ I objected gently. “Both had brought their countries, masses of people, to destruction.”
Wagner added that Mussolini had been strung up on a lamppost –also by the people.
“So what?” came the answer. “They all ganged up against him.”
Wagner said that Hitler “had exterminated many Jews”, and the response was “so what?”

Wagner quotes Leonard Kriegel, a radical professor, who admitted: “We used the word ‘genocide’ to describe everything from Vietnam to questions of whether college administrations had the right to call police on campus.”

So asking for police on campus is “genocide”, but exterminating Jews is shrugged off.

Louis Heller’s book, The Death of the American University, adds some more remarkable details on this period. He describes one professor named Richard Plant taking a long route to a subway station (to avoid attacks) and being asked by a stranger at the subway station “Do you teach at City College?”, Plant answered yes, at which point “two bearded white radicals pitched him headfirst down the concrete stairs.” This man had experienced similar occurrences in Germany in 1933.  After this experience, he wanted to leave his job as fast as possible.
Another professor, Howard Adelson, who had fought in two wars, was afraid to let his son Mark, answer the phone, since an unknown caller took satisfaction in telling the boy that his father was going to be murdered.

The president of City College was a minister named Buell Gallagher – a decent man, and former civil rights activist, who was not equipped to deal firmly with this new phenomenon.  Heller says that radical-left faculty members jeered at Buell Gallagher as Buell was being cursed by student radicals, and he faults college administration responses in general. Some of the lack of response he attributes to cowardice, as when one professor said “Gentlemen, we are sitting on a volcano. I don’t know how you’re going to vote, but I know how I intend to.”

Insurrections cost nearby Columbia University, an Ivy League school, untold millions of dollars, not just in destruction and the costs of private police protection, but also because alumni did not want to contribute to a college that constantly appeased, instead of fighting back.

Appeasement may work short-term, says Heller, but in the long-term, it shows that the administration acts from fear. And like Wagner, he writes that radical students and radical faculty deny free speech to their opponents. He described a rally at Stanford U, where speakers were invited from the audience to speak on the Vietnam war. It was supposed to be an open forum, and seemed that way, “as long as the volunteers complained about the wickedness of the US..of the atrocities committed in its name, of the repressive nature of its [society and people.]” “Finally, one veteran of Vietnam arose to present the opposite point of view – to say that things weren’t like that at all, that our country still deserved some respect. ” The Veteran had barely said a couple of sentences, when those conducting the proceedings tried to tear away his microphone. He stood his ground, and tried to continue, at which point several men tackled him and threw him bodily onto to the platform, to prevent his story being told.”

Today free speech is still not welcome by leftists (and increasingly Muslim radicals) on our campuses. That legacy from the sixties is still with us.

The left is a mystery to me.  Why throw a professor down stairs?  Why beat up girls who just want to study?  Why set fires in campuses across the country?  As for the ordinary students who did not want to get drafted and sent to a possibly life-ending experience in Vietnam – why not protest independently from these leftists?

Perhaps the left was trying to create revolution, and it was rational from their point of view to use any pretext to do so but as Wagner says, some of their manifestos were completely insane.  And as for the drug taking that became fashionable in this period, he says that by 1974, many casualties of that drug-taking culture had appeared on the streets of California – people who (in my words), had damaged their brains and destroyed their potential.  For what?

Since the sixties the left has actually progressed in its goals on campus – and even though there may be little violence, the zeitgeist among faculty and students and the youth has moved their way.

Sources:
The Death of the American University – L.G. Heller – Arlington House, 1973
The End of Education – Geoffrey Wagner – A .S Barnes publishers, 1976

My blog post also appeared in the “Intellectual Conservative” website. A nice thing about that website is that it will publish anything intelligent by anyone. The link is at: http://intellectualconservative.com/counterproductive-sixties/

Postscript:
My thesis about free-speech suppression starting with sixties is somewhat undermined by the fact that in 1934, Harvard invited a Nazi friend of Hitler’s named Hanfstaengl to speak, and when seven demonstrators began a protest against the university’s welcoming of Hanfstaengl in Harvard Square, they were arrested and then confined in the Middlesex House of Correction for six months at hard labor. The charge was: “disturbing the peace and speaking without a permit!”

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