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For many aging baby boomers and their parents, this country’s golden age does not lie shrouded in a mythic past but, rather, exists within living memory. When Donald J. Trump spoke of making America great again, his supporters knew what he meant: to return the country to its post–World War II status, when the United States bestrode the globe like a colossus. Not only did the U.S. produce as much as three-quarters of the world’s manufactured goods early in this era, but Americans’ real income grew by an average of 4.4 percent annually between 1950 and 1970.

Even though the postwar era evokes grim images of conservative conformism and Cold War paranoia, replete with blacklists, loyalty oaths and hundreds of professors hauled before state and federal investigative committees, the early postwar era also witnessed the emergence of a certain kind of restrained Cold War liberalism. This cautious liberalism was evident in the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947 and climaxed with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which phased out national immigration quotas. It was also apparent in the enactment of the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, starting with the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which authorized the Justice Department to obtain court injunctions to protect voting rights.

Among the most striking examples of Cold War liberalism was unprecedented growth in federal and state funding of higher education. Surging post–World War II federal support for university research was followed by enactment of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided the first federally funded grants and subsidized loans for college students, and later by the 1965 Higher Education Act, which expanded need-based grants and loans and created work-study jobs and outreach and support service programs for students from low-income backgrounds.

Thanks to these initiatives, undergraduate enrollments increased 45 percent between 1945 and 1960, then doubled again by 1970.

As Ellen Schrecker, who is among the most important and influential historians of the politics of postwar higher education, shows in her 2021 book, The Lost Promise, colleges and universities in the wake of World War II came to be viewed as essential for national security, economic growth and social mobility. As a result, a growing number of policy makers and college and university administrators avidly embraced the idea of expanded access.

Thanks to increased federal and state support, public flagships and land-grant campuses grew substantially in size, as did urban colleges and universities. A number of urban privates shifted to public ownership, city campuses run by local school districts were converted into state universities and a number of YMCA-affiliated institutions became private universities. At the same time, states further increased access by transforming teachers’ colleges into regional comprehensives and greatly enlarged the number of community colleges and extension campuses, while establishing dozens of public university systems and coordinating boards to oversee and manage the booming higher ed sector.

In The Lost Promise, Schrecker, best known for No Ivory Tower, her history of McCarthyism and American universities, turns her attention to the turmoil that rocked the nation’s campuses during the 1960s. This turbulence and unrest deeply divided individual institutions, alienated large swaths of the public and ultimately undercut the societal consensus committed to a more egalitarian conception of American higher education.

This portrait no doubt sounds familiar. But Schrecker challenges the view that campus conflict should be regarded simply as a battle between student radicals; rigid, despotic administrators; and cowering, out-of-touch faculty members over campus free speech, defense research, civil rights and the Vietnam War.

Such a caricature, she argues, obscures much broader, more complex disputes, in which the battle lines were not clearly drawn, spread across the entire higher ed landscape. Many clashes were campus specific, centering on dress codes, restrictions on visitation in dorm rooms, women’s access to athletics and racial integration, as well on curricula, graduation requirements, pedagogy and the very nature of specific disciplines—including appropriate research topics, methodologies and conceptual and interpretive frameworks.

In my own field, U.S. history, huge controversies erupted over embracing or rejecting the new social history and its call for a history from below, revisionist diplomatic history, which offered a critical perspective on the drivers and goals of American foreign policy, quantitative history, Marxian approaches to history and Black and women’s history.

In 621 detail-rich pages, Schrecker uncovers an extraordinary range of activist faculty and student groups that sought nothing less than to ensure that colleges and universities lived up to their high-minded values and became truly democratic institutions responsive to all their stakeholders’ voices. Self-styled insurgent sociologists, radical historians, activist literary critics, economic rebels and an array of gadflies dot her chapters.

If you fear that academic freedom is at risk today, you only have to read Schrecker’s book and the travails of Angela Davis, Bruce Franklin, Eugene Genovese, Staughton Lynd, Michael Parenti and dozens of others to see how grave the stakes were half a century ago.

Schrecker is not, of course, the first historian to write a book about colleges during the 1960s. In 2018, the great historian of higher education John R. Thelin (Brown, Class of 1969) published his own study of college life in the ’60s. His book shifts the focus away from the hotbeds of antiwar, civil rights and free speech activism, Berkeley, Columbia and Cornell, onto the experience of the overwhelming majority of students who were not radicals or hippies and who did not participate in the emerging drug culture, sexual revolution or counterculture. A single sentence clause sums up his perspective: “publicity over campus unrest in the 1960s often subjected higher education to a case of mistaken identity.”

So who is right—Schrecker, with her emphasis on campus upheavals, or Thelin, with his stress on institutional diversity and continuities with the more placid 1950s?

Despite my intense admiration for what Thelin has done—mining student memoirs, campus newspapers, oral histories and newsreels, along with archival sources and institutional records—his book is more about campus functioning—such as the growth of college admissions testing, campus housing, administrative bureaucracies, applied research, data collection and compliance with government regulations—than about higher education as an arena of ideological, political, cultural, academic and social conflict.

Relics of the 1960s often say that you needed to be there to truly understand that decade of teach-ins, sit-ins, campus protests and administration building seizures. Well, as someone who vividly recalls the ’60s and witnessed the tail end of those campus conflicts and controversies, Schrecker’s interpretation strikes me, to use the appropriate 1960s phrase, as right on.

True, most 1960s collegians did not take part in campus protests. True, the mass embrace of cultural transformations associated with the 1960s, like widespread illicit drug use, widespread premarital sexual activity and premarital cohabitation, actually occurred during the 1970s.

Nevertheless, student protests weren’t confined to elite campuses. Nor were battles over admissions policies or the introduction of programs in Black studies, Mexican American, Native American, Puerto Rican and women’s studies—or centers or houses devoted to particular identity groups or women’s access to competitive athletics.

Whether particular students protested, resisted or remained a passive observer standing on the sidelines, these controversies left an indelible imprint on their college experience and their later politics.

The 1960s bequeathed American higher education a number of complex and contradictory legacies.

The most obvious is, of course, how ’60s radicalism served as the prototype for today’s student activism, campus protests, radical politics, sexual freedom and embrace of alternate, unconventional lifestyles. One needn’t speak of indoctrination by a generation of tenured radicals to recognize that roles and behaviors associated with the 1960s offer models for a later generation with its own distinctive concerns over student debt, economic instability and inequality, climate change and the rise of a politics that many view as expressly hostile toward youth and diversity.

But other legacies of the 1960s are, perhaps, even more important:

  1. Even as access expanded, new forms of stratification emerged. Ironically, it was during the 1960s that this country institutionalized certain profound and persistent inequalities in campus resources and reputation. Research grants and contracts greatly advantaged their recipients, while other institutions lagged behind in per-student instructional expenditures.
  2. Research universities became vital partners in the emerging government-corporate complex. Building on foundations laid a decade earlier, applied and contract research became central to research universities’ finances. Although defense research attracted most attention from campus protesters, other forms of research—medical, scientific and social scientific—also fundamentally altered Tier 1 institutions’ priorities, staffing and business models. As more and more institutions pursued Tier 1 status, these universities, too, made applied and contract research central to their mission, often at the expense of their teaching responsibilities.
  3. As universities grew in size and functions, the student experience grew increasingly impersonal, feeding student discontent. Today’s calls for 360-degree, wraparound, holistic, one-stop support structures represent a reaction against the fact that large numbers of students feel a deep sense of disconnection from their professors and the institution itself. It was during the 1960s that students for the first time spoke of being reduced to mere numbers. Today, an army of professional advisers and student service and academic support professionals who staff growing career, disabilities and psychological services and tutoring and writing centers are needed precisely because earlier forms of mentoring and caring have proven wholly inadequate and unresponsive.
  4. Some leading politicians succeeded in demonizing universities, provoking an ongoing backlash that has taken disparate forms. Complaints about higher education’s high cost, administrative bloat, diminishing academic rigor, (purportedly) dead-end majors, political correctness, cancel culture, trifling research and lack of preparation for the job market have, of course, been weaponized by those less interested in institutional improvement than in ending colleges’ and universities’ monopoly over credentialing.

The dictionary definition of history as the study of the past is, of course, radically incomplete. The most compelling works of history are often as much about past precedents, ongoing, long-term trends and history’s enduring legacies as they are about the past in and of itself.

The decade of the 1960s is history, but it’s also an ineradicable, inescapable presence. Its impact remains present in today’s music, dress, speech, values, behavior and politics. It’s at universities that the ’60s’ legacies are most evident, not just in today’s campus protests, demonstrations and rallies, but in the powerful political forces that disparage, deprecate and vilify higher education and its faculty as overpriced and overpaid, bloated and underachieving.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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