an illustration of five college students all the same looking stern with a guitar slung across their backs and wearing a pin that says ban

From the Archive

What’s Really Behind Our Students’ Unrest?

In this piece from the Summer of 1966, Irwin A. Berg argues that what has led college students is considerably more deep-seated than academic restriction or Vietnam

Climate strikes. Women’s marches. Black Lives Matter rallies. Campus protests against white nationalism. We’re in the midst of one of the most active moments of youth activism in generations—arguably since the protests that swept colleges and universities (and high schools and elementary schools) for the decade beginning in 1964 and continuing through Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

In that era’s early days, Irwin A. Berg, Louisiana State University dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, adapted a seminar about the roots of campus unrest for the Summer 1966 issue of The College Board Review. It’s kind of a remarkable read.

First, Berg does something not nearly enough adults or authority figures did in this period: he took the student protester (more or less) seriously. And, second, he tries making sense of campus unrest before the worst of the Vietnam War and before protests exploded, in 1968, into a global conflagration.

We don’t often encounter the university administration view of this period before 1968, which makes Berg’s piece compelling even 50-plus years later. He underestimated some elements feeding the protests (Vietnam) and couldn’t possibly have anticipated others (Kent State), but his sensitivity to societal root causes and the importance of the campus as a “tolerant environment” for activism and debate have aged well—maybe a little too well considering many students today are fighting along the same battle lines.

two illustrations placed side by side with a crouching college student looking angry and holding a sign that reads watts wrong on the left and a phone booth full of students holding a sign that reads freedom now on the right

In the short time since the Fall 1964 student riots brought the huge Berkeley campus of the University of California to a near standstill for three days, at least a dozen scientific studies, several books, and literally hundreds of articles in professional journals and the mass media have attempted to explain the suddenly discovered “unrest” and “activism” among students—not merely at Berkeley but at colleges everywhere.

The tone and content of much of this pondering implies that there is something basically new, different, and probably ominous in the restiveness of students today. One researcher has even observed that “the current surge of college student unrest and active protest must certainly be among the most significant developments in American higher education, perhaps in American society, of the mid-1960s.”1

My own view of today’s student protest is less alarmed. My view admittedly is based primarily on 26 years as a college teacher, not on empirical research. Nevertheless, my position is that student protest certainly is not new, nor is what’s causing it today basically different from what caused it in the past. If there is anything new about our current situation, it may be that today’s student sees his basis for protest as even more deep-rooted in the society around him than did students in former years. How ominous that development may be I shall let the reader decide.

Dynamiting Nassau Hall

Student protest can be traced back to within a few decades of the founding of our first university. Harvard University President Nathan M. Pusey did so recently when he cited a complaint about Harvard’s “ungoverned youths in their ungovernableness”: The source was Cotton Mather, and the date was the 1680s. In the 1850s, according to education historian W. H. Cowley2, Princeton University students dynamited Nassau Hall three times. During the same period, Yale students set fire to the college coal pile every spring and then hurled glowing embers into the rooms of unpopular professors. And Cowley also tells of “horning” at pre-Civil War Dartmouth, where detested professors were subjected to relays of students blowing horns under their windows night and day.

College instruction in those days was heavily theological, of course. Athletic competition was forbidden, and students were under what was virtually police surveillance by professors, the majority of whom were clergymen. But while ostensibly what these students were protesting was their regimentation, I’m sure the real underlying cause of the protest was their feeling of lack of status—lack of personal worth to society—of which their regimentation was merely the chief symbol.

“Last twitches of individualism”

This same theme, or variations on it, runs throughout much of the recent “post-Berkeley” literature I have mentioned: what today’s student protest really represents is a search for identity, a cry for status and for a feeling of personal worth in today’s society. Irving Kristol, vice president of Basic Books, has observed in the November 1965 Atlantic.3 “Practically every college student these days understands what is meant by an ‘identity crisis’; it is one of the clichés of the sixties. It is not, perhaps, too much to say that mass picketing on the campus is one of the last twitches of a slowly expiring American individualism.”

I think this diagnosis is basically sound. Once the physical necessities of life are reasonably met, the need for a feeling of personal worth is of grave importance to humans of all ages. The awareness that he really isn’t needed in the scheme of things is shattering, something hardly anyone can accept. Yet today’s student—like students since time immemorial—is constantly reminded of just this fact simply because he is almost totally dependent on others for his support.

the cover of the summer 1966 issue of the college board review magazine featuring an abstract image in lime red and white

The fact that this dependency is temporary and is culturally approved is mitigating, but still the student doesn’t like it. Nor does he like it that those who support him often rub his nose in his dependency, so to speak, by refusing to take him seriously. We pay careful attention, oddly enough, to the 20-year-old who happens to be a plumber, appliance repairman, or saleslady, but not to the 20-year-old who happens to be a student. In the face of such treatment, the student has asked wistfully, then peremptorily: “Who am I? What am I?”

Our answer is loud and clear: “Not much. You aren’t much.”

Because this reply is unacceptable, the student must do something to negate or at least weaken it. He may become an accomplished athlete, and thus very necessary to his team. He may earn high praise for superb academic or social achievements. He may fall deeply in love and be so needed by his loved one that the question of his identity has a living answer in his sweetheart. He can banish the question with alcohol, marijuana, or hallucinogenic drugs. Or he can protest—overtly, noisily, and so compellingly that he cannot be lightly dismissed. He can say angrily and convincingly that he is too something, and that he will be taken seriously.

I think we can trace this insistence on being taken seriously all through what I consider to be the three major forms of student protest today. It’s certainly evident in the negative protests. I don’t think students who stone the police or jeer and curse university officials, who carry placards with obscenities on them, or who hold nude parties are really demanding civil and academic anarchy, more freedom of speech, or an end to all sexual mores. They are insisting on being taken notice of.

Kristol, in the article cited earlier, notes this same phenomenon in connection with student agitation over civil rights. “If one read every campus leaflet published these past two years,” he says, “and attended every campus or off-campus demonstration, and knew only what one learned from these sources, one would hardly be aware that the Johnson Administration had enacted in the area of civil rights the most far-reaching reforms in a century of legislative history. There has been no campus meeting to celebrate the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act ... It’s as if nothing had happened—or, to put it more precisely, as if whatever happens in Washington has nothing to do with the world the students live and act in.”

Even positive “activism” is protest

This same basic motive, it seems to me, is also behind much of what I call today’s positive student protest. Instead of rioting or blockading a university administration building, some students choose to join the Peace Corps or the Volunteers in Service to America, to build homes for evicted sharecroppers or rebuild bombed churches. In North Carolina, for example, a group of students have formed something they call YES—Youth Educational Services—to provide tutoring to educationally handicapped youth. And in the Greensboro area there is an offshoot of YES called GUTS—Greensboro United Tutorial Service—in which 150 students are tutoring more than 300 educationally deprived young people. This positive activism is certainly constructive, altruistic, and altogether commendable. Nevertheless, it’s a form of protest: a demonstration that the students are somebody and can accomplish something.

I also see this drive behind what I call unpolarized protest: the outbreaks of silly, farcical behavior that erupt periodically in every student generation. In recent years these outbreaks have included panty raids, live-goldfish ingestion, trundling bedsteads over miles of public highway, cramming students into telephone booths, and the like. Here in Baton Rouge, we have had occasional incidents of “mooning,” a practice in which students thrust their bare backsides out of car windows to the consternation of passersby. In the same vein, I can recall that over 30 years ago my fraternity brothers and I were awakened at 2 a.m. one morning by 50 members of a rival fraternity who, returning from a beer party, were thundering a song whose theme I’ll roughly translate here as: “Phi Gamma Delta, we are relieving ourselves on your lawn!”

Why its roots go deeper

While there is nothing new about students protesting the fact that society doesn’t seem to need them, however, I have indicated that today’s students seem to feel that their “surplus” status is more deep-rooted in the society around them than did students in the past. If so, I suggest that the far-reaching socio-economic changes that have occurred in America in the past three decades or so are to blame.

Kristol touches on these changes and their effects when he notes that what “bugs” today’s students most is the way America has become “organized.” From the liberalism of the 1930s and 1940s, he says, has emerged an affluent welfare state in which “they see their lives laid out neatly before them ... They know that with a college degree even ‘failure’ in their careers will represent no harsh punishment ... and they react against this bourgeois utopia their parents so ardently strove for.”

an archival chart demonstrating the five chief causes of student protest in 1965: civil rights locally at 38 percent, food service on campus at 29 percent, dormitory regulations at 28 percent, civil rights in the south at 28 percent, and other civil rights issues at 24 percent. the chart is illustrated by five stern college students standing with clenched fists, a guitar slung across their backs, and wearing a pin that reads ban

I would go even further and say that in today’s affluent, bourgeois, welfare-oriented utopia, the student really is economically more surplus than he has ever been—at least as a producer. And among the economic signs of our changing times that can’t help but be driving this fact home to him are the effects of automation.

Many students probably are personally acquainted, for example, with men in their forties who have been automated out of a job and can’t find another. If not, they certainly have read in the mass media or seen on TV features about such other effects of automation as 17-week vacations for senior steelworkers, workers who are being retired at age 50, East Coast electrical workers with their 24-hour work week, and so on. For the student, the implications of how little this strange new economic world needs him as a producer must be all too clear.

Their one inglorious role

But while he’s surplus as a producer, there is one role in which our new utopia does need him: as a consumer. And in that inglorious role, he’s needed desperately.

The point has been made elsewhere and buttressed with reams of data that entire industries are heavily dependent on the consumer who is 21 or younger. The phonograph-record industry, for example, would collapse if its sales to those under 22 were cut off. Conversely, a small record company that comes up with just the right combination of jangling sound patterns rendered by uniquely coiffured and attired youngsters can net huge profits from its resulting sales to millions of other youngsters. Similarly, if the hip young crowd ever decides that stovepipe hats are “in” and shoes are “out,” certain manufacturers will burgeon or shrivel depending on whether their products are for the head or the feet. I think our students’ awareness of these realities—that they’re not needed as producers but are needed as consumers—are important factors in both the form and frequency of their protest.

And Viet Nam doesn’t help

A final factor that I think today’s student sees as bearing directly on his evaluation by society is the situation in Viet Nam. So far, I’ve said that our general answer to the student’s question of who and what he is has been: “Not much—except as a consumer.” Then along comes Viet Nam, and we add: “On second thought, maybe you are good for something. The army needs you.”

It’s true that to train, equip, and maintain several hundred thousand young men under arms here and overseas means not only that we’ve temporarily found a “useful” role for them, but that even more thousands of people young and old will have jobs producing what our armed forces need. But I’m sure the student doesn’t consider this any answer to his question. He sees the Viet Nam situation as yet another thread in the web of his present circumstances, another reminder of his helplessness and lack of worth. And I think this awareness is behind a good deal of the bitter anti-Viet Nam student protest today.4

In view of all this, what can we tell the protesting student? Can we honestly assure him that he does have any more meaningful role in our society than as a consumer or soldier? Of course we can. Unfortunately, the answer is far less dramatic than the protest, and I don’t for a moment expect it to be decisive or fulfilling enough to still today’s student unrest.

About all we can tell him is that while college may not be giving him the sense of identity and feeling of personal worth he wants, it is offering him something of value. He’s getting social experience and vocational training, of course. (And he’s getting a chance to express outrageous notions in a tolerant environment that only his dependent status, the thing that irks him most, makes possible.) But he’s also being offered something less tangible—something that is caught, not taught.

He’s being offered the chance to mature in a special way that only college can provide: an opportunity to wrestle with ideas, grapple with vast concepts, and match his mind against greater and lesser minds in order to reach at least an intellectual identity. If this inoculation takes, he may achieve one of the true goals of any sound education: a sense of proportion. And if he really reacts to the inoculation, he might, as columnist Sidney J. Harris has noted, acquire the most priceless product of education in a truly democratic society: the ability to understand the consequences of one’s beliefs.

  1. Richard E. Peterson, The scope of organized student protest in 1961–1965, research monograph (Princeton, N. J.: Educational Testing Service, 1966).
  2. “Some history and a venture in prophecy,” in Trends in Student Personnel Work, E. G. Williamson, editor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1949).
  3. Irving Kristol, “What’s bugging the students,” The Atlantic, November 1965, 108.
  4. There is another aspect of these anti-Viet Nam protests that I cannot dismiss this lightly. In our society today, there are a thousand and one things closer to home than Viet Nam that could more logically serve as focal points for student dissatisfaction, it seems to me. Yet the bitterest and most widespread demonstrations have been those centering on this issue. My opinion may be subjective and personal, but I cannot believe these protests are spontaneous or mere happenstance; they show too many indications of deft timing, of shrewdly exploited incidents, of expert organization. I believe the nature and form of the Viet Nam protests are engineered as subtly and skillfully as the Madison Avenue campaigns that lead us to eat a particular breakfast food or drink a certain brand of beer.