The American Campus: 1962

The American Campus: 1962

I am writing this from New Haven. Last night I debated a retired general on the House Un-American Activities Committee before about two hundred students. The meeting was sponsored by “Challenge,” an organization at Yale which brings controversial speakers to the campus. A contingent from the local Young Americans for Freedom showed up, though they were not in costume (sometimes they come to peace meetings in ROTC uniform; on their last outing everyone wore dark glasses). I would guess that the audience was at least two thirds on my side and rather demonstratively so.

Ten years ago when I first came here to speak, the meeting was held in a student’s apartment off campus. Our mood was that of catechumens. This contrast in New Haven could be extended all over the country, for during the past decade the campus has opened up. There is a spirit of debate and concern working among the students.

I have been traveling the country throughout this period (for several years, I thought I should have been billed as the “oldest young socialist” alive; now, alas, students sometimes call me “Sir”). In that time, I have been privy to an endless number of bull sessions about the nature of the “student movement.” For that matter, one of the characteristics of the reawakening on campus is a sort of frenzy of introspection and self-consciousness, with groups spending almost as much time in front of a mirror as on the picket line.

This experience has convinced me that it is next to useless to propose some general theory of the campus. The generations succeed one another with a rapidity almost like that of the tsetse fly; the departure of a few key students can change the look of a college within the span of a summer vacation.

So let me set down a few impressions. The change on the campus began around 1956 or 1957, it was enormously accelerated by the sit-ins and the sympathy demonstrations they evoked, and it is still moving forward. Its mood has been more radical than liberal, oriented toward single “issues” rather than finished ideologies (but conscious politicals have often played a decisive organization role). Its tone is moral, focusing on questions like peace, capital punishment and human equality, ignoring economic conflict and social planning.