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College Student Activism, or How to "Disguise Subversive Action like a Sugar-Coated Pill" (October 2017): The 1920s and 1930s

By Robert V. Labaree

The 1920s and 1930s

The 1920s marked a relatively quiet period of college student activism. However, a notable exception was the series of student strikes, faculty protests, and administrative resignations that took place at predominantly black colleges such as Fisk, Florida A&M, Hampton, Tuskegee, and Howard. The various sources of such unrest included draconian student conduct codes, conflict over liberal arts versus vocational instruction, the preponderance of white trustees and presidents at historically black colleges and universities, and student reactions to segregation on campus. Drawing extensively from black periodicals and newspapers and the personal papers of W. E. B. DuBois, Raymond Wolters thoroughly examines these protests in The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s. He offers valuable insights as a way to understand not only race relations during this period of time, but also the Civil Rights Movement that emerged in the early 1960s.

The 1930s represented a very different picture of college student activism. The quoted passage that serves as a subtitle to this essay comes from a line in the satirical poem “Remembrance of Things Past,” written by Gilbert Sullivan for the February 1936 issue of The Student Advocate. The monthly magazine, published from 1936 to 1939, reflected the views of the American Student Union, an odd grouping of militant socialist and communist student organizations that became the most prominent student activist organization leading up to World War II. The poem was “dedicated to that gallant company of college officials” who had been radicals in their youth, but who now, according to the author, only perpetuated suppression of free speech and led an inevitable march to war in collusion with the likes of the William Randolph Hearst media empire and the American Legion. The poem reflected the frustration of youth in the decades following World War I, who increasingly viewed that “war to end war” as having had no rational justification, with an outcome that only seemed to have laid the foundation for another horrible slaughter in Europe where college-age adults would once again be sent to fight, and many to be maimed or killed.

The interwar period of 1921 to 1940 was also marked by the traumatic push and pull of unbridled economic expansion and mass consumerism, which enriched some but left little for many others, followed by the abrupt economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression. Although most middle-class college students could absorb the initial shock of economic turmoil, most eventually found few job opportunities after graduation. This, coupled with fear and loathing for an emerging world order that seemed inevitably bent towards another great war in Europe, sowed the seeds of the first wave of nationally organized college student activism in the United States. The 1930s were a time of significant levels of protest on campus. For example, at its peak in 1936, it was estimated that perhaps half of the students enrolled in college participated in peace-movement protests. Based on current projected fall undergraduate enrollment data in degree-granting postsecondary institutions provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, this number would be equivalent in 2017 to more than ten million students involved in protests.

Despite the significance of the first great wave of college student activism, there are relatively few studies focused on this era of organized student protests. Robert Cohen’s book When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941 provides the most comprehensive and thoroughly researched treatment of the rise and fall of student activism. Cohen systematically documents the people, places, and events that marked the student peace movement. Other works of note include The First Student Movement: Student Activism in the United States during the 1930s, by Ralph Brax, which offers a succinct description of the rise of student activism and its demise. Eileen Eagan offers a similar but more detailed examination of the underlying causes and consequences of the student peace movement in Class, Culture, and the Classroom: The Student Peace Movement of the 1930s. Important books written by student activists at the time are James Wechsler’s Revolt on the Campus, originally published in 1935 but reprinted in 1973 with thoughts from the author comparing student movements during the 1930s and 1960s. Reed Harris’s King Football: The Vulgarization of the American College offers a critique of academe’s overemphasis on college football and also opens a window into the role of special interests in academic bureaucracies.

Of special note is David Whisenhunt’s Veterans of Future Wars: A Study in Student Activism. This important study concerns a protest event that was deliberately pursued separately from the larger student peace movement. Whisenhunt examines a protest started as a prank by Princeton University students angry over World War I veterans lobbying Congress to pay them bonuses during the height of the Great Depression. Particularly galling to these students were demands from personnel who had never left the training camps, in what the students called veterans of the “Battle of Fort Dix.” This protest spontaneously led to the establishment of more than 500 Veterans of Future Wars “posts” on campuses nationwide in the spring of 1936, with an estimated membership of 60,000 students. Although short-lived, the rise of the Veterans of Future Wars is a lesson in how newspapers and written correspondence created a spontaneous national student movement well before the rise of the internet and social media.