Posts Tagged ‘Student Radicals’

College tuition and the anti-radical backlash

May 5, 2022

Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, links the high cost of college education today to the conservative backlash against the student protesters of the 1960s.  Here is his argument.

The 1944 G.I. Bill signed by Franklin Roosevelt included a free college benefit almost as an afterthought, since academic and political leaders thought that most returning troops wouldn’t be “college material,” in an era when only 5% of Americans earned bachelor’s degrees and a majority didn’t finish high school.  Instead, the mostly working-class G.I. Bill recipients stunned the nation both in their large numbers and their devotion to taking classes. It was the start of a virtuous cycle that flowed into the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s and the booming birth rate. By 1960, the rate of American youth heading off to college had skyrocketed six-fold to 31%

Kent State shooting

Yet this new American ideal of college wasn’t just a numbers racket. In the mid-20th century, the nation had emerged from a Great Depression, two world wars, and the arrival of the atomic bomb.  Thought leaders wondered if the concept of liberal education — geared toward developing critical thinking and not just rote career training — could steer America away from fascism, communism, and nuclear war.

Young Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s embraced this idea. Enrollment in the humanities and social sciences soared. In one 1969 survey of freshmen, 82% said what mattered about college wasn’t career training but “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”  But for America’s so-called Establishment, the problem was what CIA agents would later label “blowback.”  Young people trained to venerate democracy and employ critical thinking turned their focus to America’s own hypocrisy — its senseless militarism in Vietnam, and racial apartheid in the Deep South, among other issues.

Top officials seemed less worried about the uproar at elite campuses like Columbia and more concerned about radicalism at the massive state universities —Berkeley or New York State’s university at Buffalo — that had exploded with working-class kids taking advantage of low (or free) tuition. They also nervously eyed rising enrollment and protests at HBCUs like Mississippi’s Jackson State University, where cops would murder two Black students on May 15, 1970.

Kent State skyrocketed from 5,000 students in 1954 to 21,000 by 1966, many of them kids of factory workers whose idealism had been forged in the New Deal-era union activism. By 1970, students exhausted by watching their neighbors return from Vietnam in body bags gravitated toward radical groups like Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. The final trigger was then-President Nixon sending U.S. troops into Cambodia, which led to Kent State protesters burning down the ROTC building, which caused Ohio’s governor to call up the National Guard.

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