Campus Activism and Going to College in the 60's with John Thelin

Writing about “Going to College in the Sixties” has encouraged me to think a lot about “Going to College” today.  Connecting past and present in American higher education is a fascinating and serious game because a lot is at stake for applicants and their families.  I cannot think of any nation where the excitement and energy devoted to college is so intense.  Going to College in the Sixties is timely because this is the 50th anniversary of landmark events involving campus life and student activism.  Making comparisons across time is interesting but exasperating because there are both similarities and differences between the two eras.  The most interesting finding I came across was that college in the 1960s was relatively inexpensive by today’s standards – but the trade off was that students faced over-crowding, long lines, large lecture classes, and very few academic support services.  Many college presidents and deans were rather aloof and indifferent to the campus as experienced by students. There also were no federal student aid programs such as Pell Grants or student loans.  Women represented a growing number and percentage of undergraduates nationwide, but this was dampened by the fact that often they were treated as second class citizens within the campus community.  Women had few opportunities in intercollegiate athletics and many other activities.  Despite high achievement as shown by grade point averages and test scores, women often were derailed or discouraged from some fields and from applying to graduate school.  So, we are witnesses to dramatic changes in access and opportunity in our own times.

The highly publicized events of the mid and late 1960s included student protests and campus activism.  What is difficult in historical writing, however, is to try to cover the entire landscape of American colleges and universities, including the range and diversity of students.  The volatile campus demonstrations tended to be concentrated at first at such campuses as the University of California, Berkeley and then Michigan, Wisconsin, then to Harvard and Columbia.  By the end of the decade many, perhaps most, college students were aware of and concerned about campus issues and political events – but often it was as observers who were reflecting rather than as full-fledged activists.

The start of the decade was marked by optimism and a confidence in growth and prosperity, both for the nation as a whole and the activities and enterprise of higher education.  I doubt few higher education advocates or leaders of 1960 would have believed the unravelling and disruption that characataerized American colleges and universities over the next ten years.  Great expectations were accompanied soon by great disagreements and disappointments.  One favorable consequence was that many students and faculty questioned the essentials of what the college experience ought to be, what were the genuine aims of a college education.

On balance, I see American colleges and universities during the 1960s becoming increasingly fractured and confrontational.  The typical campus accommodated a fairly wide range of interests and priorities among students – but within that mix there were severe tensions and conflicts that usurped mutual coexistence and avoidance.  One result was a loss of public confidence in colleges and universities, due in large measure to new levels of media coverage including nationally televised news shows.  Looking over college between 1960 to 1970 one becomes a witness to history in our own time, marked by dramatic contrasts.  Gains in access and diversity were substantial, but were characterized by growing pains.  Going to college in the sixties was both exciting and exhausting.  I welcome comments and questions as together we explore this interesting era of campus life – and compare it to higher education today.

John R. Thelin, who went to college in the 1960s, is a University Research Professor and a member of the Educational Policy Studies Department at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education, A History of American Higher Education, and Games Colleges Play: Scandal and Reform in Intercollegiate Athletics. Most recently he is the author of Going to College in the Sixties