Columbia’s 68 Celebration: Only Radicals Need Apply

This past weekend Columbia University held a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Student Strike that shook Columbia and all of higher education. For a week, student activists occupied five buildings in protest of several policies, including ROTC’s presence on campus, the university’s relationship to the Department of Defense and the war in Vietnam, the intrusion of a new gymnasium into the neighboring African-American community, and a host of student power issues. After violent clashes between police and students brought the university to the precipice, the students won virtually all of their demands. Columbia and higher education in general have never been the same since those climactic events.

The actions of 1968 were of profound importance, calling for a thorough, critical examination in the light of the intervening forty years. Unfortunately, the panels and events over the weekend appear to have fallen short of this hope. Critical viewpoints were not showcased, and a feeling of nostalgia often held sway. Interestingly, this result was as American as apple pie.

We Americans are known for our penchant for nostalgia. We make fun of this sentiment all the time, but few of us are immune to its lures. It’s a peculiarly American trait because it is the logical product of combining non-tragic (or anti-tragic) liberal sentimentality with the unavoidable interest in the past. We care about the past, but not enough to let it drag us down with the weight of tragedy. Reinhold Niebuhr, the renowned theologian and foreign policy thinker who taught at Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary from 1930 to 1960 (he even has a street named after him on the campus), captured better than anyone the American peoples’ difficulty in fathoming tragedy and evil – including the tragedy and evil in their own hearts. In addressing the Cold War and the drive for social justice, Niebuhr called for a mentality that could face good and evil in oneself and in others, and tragedy and hope, without caving into either naive optimism or dismissive cynicism and Machiavellianism. He called the acolytes of the former mentality the “children of light,” the latter the “children of darkness.” Charting a middle course, Niebuhr advocated a more enlightened sense of balance that amounted to a more responsible form of civic education.

Of course, American social reality – like all reality – is complex, and counter-forces to this mentality have always existed. Tocqueville portrayed many of these forces as “remedies” or resistances to the dominant liberal current of American political culture. One such institution has been universities, which are dedicated to the pursuit of truth in all its shades and to the preservation of historical knowledge and consciousness. When universities are true to their natures, they provide a counter-weight to the nation’s penchant for simplistic moralism and dichotomous thinking. Serious thought should replace sentimentality and nostalgia.

This is why Columbia University’s recent commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Student Strike (held April 24-27) was a missed opportunity that exposed a continuing problem in higher education. The Columbia uprising was a watershed, a significant part of a national and world-wide movement that changed both higher education and national politics for better and worse. Supporters point to such results as the restructuring of universities across the land, the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, and the impact of the politics on social justice movements outside the university. Critics disagree up and down the line, claiming that the uprising seriously politicized and weakened Columbia as an educational institution, and that it did more to advance the cause of political conservatism than of the progressive left.

Columbia 1968 also highlighted the complexity of human action and motivation, as it witnessed idealistic students pointing out problems with the university as an institution, but also engaging in thuggish acts that included violence (provoked to highly debated degrees by police) and the trashing of property. In one case, some activists showed their respect for intellectual diversity by destroying years of research complied by a professor known to be critical of their views.
Because of the historical significance of the events and the way in which they showcased the interplay of good and evil, hope and tragedy, the commemoration presented an ideal opportunity for genuine civic education along Niebuhr’s lines. Indeed, that was the hope expressed by Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, over a year ago when a group of `68 alumni came to him with the idea for a forum. According to the student paper, the Columbia Spectator, in a report in January, “Those spearheading the plans emphasized the need to convey a personal and multi-angled image of the events that forever altered the University… the four alumni wrote in their letter to Bollinger.”

In the end, however, the eventful weekend appears to have fallen well short of this aspiration. Organizers apparently made some effort to include a fuller spectrum of viewpoints – though people with whom I spoke harbored different views of just how conscientious this effort was. But the events and panels were dominated by activists who remained sympathetic to 1968, and who combined one-sided analysis with sentimental recollection. According to a New York Times report of the weekend, “Of the roughly 1,100 students who took part in the occupation of the five campus buildings, about 500 attended the reunion, said Nancy Biberman, one of the organizers. At the time, the campus was divided, with a conservative group, calling itself the Majority Coalition and composed partly of athletes, opposing the strike and building takeovers. They were not represented.”

Email correspondence among the event planners to which I had access reveals an interesting debate over the looming lack of inclusiveness, as well as commentary about the number of neutral or skeptical faculty members who did not plan to show up. Part of the problem may have been based on self-selection. But given the importance of what happened in 1968 and Columbia’s pedagogical obligations to the nation, organizers should have pulled out all the stops to ensure the presence of sharply dissenting views. Instead, the public was left with a lack of true intellectual diversity that is all too symptomatic of elite academic institutions today.

The class of 1968 at Columbia and elsewhere considers itself one of the most important classes in American history. But leaders of Columbia’s present undergraduate body appear to have a better idea of what a university is for. In an editorial published on April 24 entitled “Both Sides Now,” the editors of the Spectator called for the spirit of critical inquiry at the upcoming commemoration: “perhaps because the reunion was organized mostly by people sympathetic to the protests, the events slotted for April 26 and 27 seem self-congratulatory in light of the decidedly mixed views toward these protesters. Whereas the more nuanced of the scheduled gatherings aim to provide valuable historical perspective, events commemorating the protesters might succumb to the assumption that 1968 had only positive effects on balance. Those in attendance should work to appreciate the complexity of the historical consequences of spring 1968.”

In addition to showing that radicals of the 1960s are as prone to American character traits as anyone else, Columbia’s 1968 reunion illustrates how students today are often better prepared to defend the university’s classic mission – especially under heat – than the university’s erstwhile leaders. The Spectator’s editors are the proper heirs of Niebuhr and the other great minds that Columbia has produced over the decades.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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