School's out. That was the news in early May 1970, when hundreds of colleges and universities across the country canceled classes, exams, and graduation exercises, fearing violent student protests against the war in Vietnam. Campus demonstrations and strikes escalated following President Richard Nixon's announcement on April 30 that U.S. ground troops would cross the border from Vietnam into Cambodia. The military's mission was to find and destroy sanctuaries the North Vietnamese army used to support its forces fighting on the South Vietnamese side of the border.
The next day, Friday, May 1, students at Kent State University in Ohio joined thousands of others across the country to mount protests against the invasion that would eventually grow into what news reports called a national student strike. When demonstrations spilled from the campus into downtown Kent in the early hours of Saturday, May 2, Mayor Leroy Satrom requested National Guard troops from Gov. James Rhodes of Ohio. Confrontations between students and guardsmen ensued over the next 36 hours, culminating just after noon on Monday, May 4, when the soldiers fired their rifles at students, killing four and wounding nine. Two of the dead were passers-by who had not been protesting.
Within days, students at other colleges and universities responded with rage at the Kent State shootings. Many campuses closed temporarily in order to dampen the student anger, and some didn't reopen until the fall.
The approaching 40th anniversary of the spring 1970 events invites comparisons with the placid political climate on campuses today, a quietness that prevails even though the nation remains mired in wars as controversial as Vietnam was. "Where's the outrage?" is a common retort of radical elders to the lethargy they see on campuses today. Guardsmen on campus were a problem in 1970; but this spring the problem for antiwar activists is a student culture so quiescent that troops are unnecessary.
The exceptions to the dormancy that dominates campuses are few, and even those underscore the larger countrywide pattern of political indifference. Student strikes in California this spring against the privatization of public education and the rising costs of attending colleges and universities were signs that student political life still has a pulse. The call for a national strike and "day of action" on its namesake date by the California March 4 movement had a late-60s/early-70s ring to it, but responses to the call were underwhelming, especially outside of California.
The usual explanations for the difference between then and now won't do. The suggestion, for example, that the renewal of a military draft would ignite students' self-interest doesn't account for the fact that most 60s-era students were sufficiently sheltered from the draft to make their chances of seeing combat negligible. Lewis B. Hershey, director of the Selective Service until 1970, granted draft deferments to students and some white-collar professionals on the reasoning that engineers, scientists, and teachers were essential to national security and the war effort. By the time the lottery system evened the playing field somewhat in 1969, "Vietnamization" was under way, and the number of combat roles filled by American GI's began shrinking.
Likewise, the argument that students today are shielded from the terribleness of war by a government and news media that don't reveal the graphic truth is weak. A comparison of news coverage, past and present, would show that there is far more information available now.
In any case, the idea that students of any generation are so self-interested that they would oppose a war only because it would not be in their interest to fight in it—which seems to be the assumption behind the claim that if there was a draft now, as in the 60s, students would oppose the war—has a finger-shaking quality to it that, delivered by older mentors, is not going to deliver the intended results. That attitude toward student apathy, along with the notion that students remain willfully uninformed about the causes and consequences of the current wars because, well, life is more comfortable that way, works better as a scold than an explanation.
The fact is that student culture today is formed in institutional settings that have changed since the 1960s and 1970s.
The higher cost of education, for one thing, defines two paths to an undergraduate degree, and both curtail campus political culture. One path, typical of private colleges and universities, dictates a lock-step progression through liberal-arts curricula preset to move students from matriculation to graduation in four years. Students' packed schedules allow little time for such frivolity as political activism. The other path, typical of public colleges and universities, harnesses many students to full- and part-time jobs in order to pay for their educations, which might extend far beyond four years. Mediating institutions like neighborhood schools and churches, labor unions, or even extended families that may once have helped students integrate their on- and off-campus lives are now frayed by cost-saving consolidations, plant closings, and the greater mobility required for job searches.
And unlike the paths leading beyond bachelor's degrees to careers in the expanding post-World War II economy, those walked by many students today merely lead to unpaid internships and their parents' basement apartments.
The very effectiveness of the student movement's mobilizations in the 60s against the war in Vietnam wrought other changes that mitigate a repeat of that era's radicalism. Disasters like Kent State taught administrators to "never say never" to student demands. Their own ham-handedness having led them to the tactic of "repressive tolerance," presidents and deans put liberal wrappings around innocuous initiatives like "community service" and "experiential learning" and handed them back to students as the new "activism." Want an organization for human/labor/abortion/housing rights? Sure. Want an office and budget with that? No problem. Course credits? We can do that, too.
The proliferation of minor sports and the Title IX decision in 1972 that opened athletics programs to women filled the discretionary hours in college life for still more students. The image of students and faculty members engaged in after-hours plotting to change the world is hopelessly nostalgic. Offers to meet students after class for coffee and conversation about a lecture are rebuffed with "I've got practice" or I've got a meeting."
New practices like student course evaluations, which grew out of student dissatisfaction with classes they found irrelevant to the events of the 60s—with the Vietnam War at the top of the list—were usurped by college authorities. The questionnaires once formulated by student groups—which then distributed them and collected the data for redistribution to classmates for their use—became tools in the hands of administrators for closer oversight of the curriculum and control of the faculty.
And the same 24/7 media establishment that brings us more news faster also brings the mind-strangling programming of American Idol and ESPN, accompanied by more low-priced electronic gadgetry than the family SUV can haul to the campus. Forty years ago, one hall phone for a dozen rooms and a television lounge shared by students in the dorm necessitated the negotiated use of social space and fostered a common sense of American life. Now, students are plugged into their own isolating iSpace. Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet may create community of a sort, but those communities are fragmented and isolated from one another.
Today, the technology that students imagine delivering the globe to them just as effectively delivers their minds and emotions to marketers and propagandists for whom their atomized selves are no match. Colleges and universities, meanwhile, abet the emPodding of their students, spending millions on hardware and reconfigured infrastructure in a race for bragging rights as the "most wired" school in America.
Most detrimental to the kind of student mobilizations that closed campuses 40 years ago are the junior-year-abroad programs that began to expand after Kent State. For most students, their first term on the campus is an orientation to college life; the second term is a time to sample some organizational involvements. Those interests deepen during the early months of the second year, and a new generation of leaders begins to emerge. Then, the enticements of study abroad wash over the class: Oxford for poets, Rome for artists, and Oaxaca for anthropologists. Who can resist?
It's the best and brightest who get the tickets, of course, and by spring break of sophomore year, the class leaders, the ones who might have gone to Port Huron in 1962, set their sights ahead and begin withdrawing their commitments to the campus community. On an annual basis, the friendship networks and organizational connections that might have grown into a Free Speech Movement in 1964 are fractured and left for the next year's first-term sophomores to rebuild. Seniors returning from overseas have majors to complete, LSAT's and GRE's to master, and the next round of application forms to fill out—little time to make a better campus, let alone end a war.
Political projects like Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s developed with the guidance of student leaders who were committed to something beyond their own four or five years as undergraduates—and then sometimes evolved into community or workplace organizing projects that lasted many more years. Today, the institutional realities of student life make it hard for undergraduates to sustain commitments beyond 18 months.
When President Barack Obama broke the color barrier to the White House in 2008, pundits noted the large numbers of student campaigners and voters who turned out for him. We can't be sure, though, whether their presence in the campaign was a difference-maker or just different looking when viewed against the backdrop of the campus quietude we had become accustomed to.
In January, President Obama turned out for Martha Coakley's run for the Massachusetts Senate seat left vacant by Edward Kennedy's death. But college students did not. Maybe disappointment with Obama's surge in Afghanistan had turned students to the left, and they took it out on the Democratic Party. But not likely. A forum on the war I attended late last year ended with the same exasperation as others in recent years: Where are the students?
The 60s remembered through the photograph of a Kent State student lying lifeless on the ground has even less appeal for students in 2010 than for the Class of 1970. But histories of that period also record the correlation between student activism and changes that made this country better: students sitting in for racial integration in Greensboro; students standing up for free speech in Berkeley; and students marching on the Pentagon for peace in Vietnam.
Better than questions about the lethargy of student activism in 2010 are inquiries into the times. Where are the 60s? It's the times that have changed, not the students. It's the administrative practices and economic circumstances incubating campus culture that have changed. Those conditions didn't change on their own, however, and they won't change themselves again.