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College Student Activism, or How to "Disguise Subversive Action like a Sugar-Coated Pill" (October 2017): Historical Surveys

By Robert V. Labaree

Historical Surveys

In addition to Willis Rudy’s aforementioned 1996 book The Campus and a Nation in Crisis, there are many good, general examinations of college student activism and protest movements. Works published during and immediately after the student protest movements of the 1960s include a volume edited by Frederick Wilhelmsen, Seeds of Anarchy: A Study of Campus Revolution, which includes the “special essay” by then-governor of California Ronald Reagan, alongside critical essays describing how student rebellion had turned “campuses into centers of anarchy and barbarism.” Scholar of higher education Alexander Astin takes a more academic approach in The Power of Protest, in which he reexamines findings from a national study of campus unrest that originated during a seminar on higher education held in 1967–68 at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Reviewing instances of unrest beginning in the early 1960s to identify the factors that increase the likelihood of protests, Astin analyzes the dynamics of protest events and outcomes based on changes in institutions and participants. Michael W. Miles explains the origins of student unrest, the dynamics of protest and resistance, and the revolutionary nationalism of Black Student and New Left movements in The Radical Probe: The Logic of Student Rebellion, and he places these variables within the framework of the industrialization of higher education. In Protest! Student Activism in America, editors Julian Foster and Durward Long include essays from scholars in a variety of disciplines who examine the roots of protest, describe case studies of protest events, analyze their relationship to power seeking, and offer reflections on the impact of protests. Another work from 1969 offering an analytical description of student activism from a social-scientific perspective is Lewis Feuer’s The Conflict of Generations: The Character and Significance of Student Movements. Others in this vein to be recommended include Seymour Martin Lipset and Gerald M. Schaflander’s 1971 study Passion and Politics: Student Activism in America, and the 1970 edited work by Edward Sampson, Harold Korn, and others titled Student Activism and Protest.

Other studies of note published several years after the student movements of the 1960s include Fists and Flowers: A Social Psychological Interpretation of Student Dissent, by Alice Ross Gold, Richard Christie, and Lucy Norman Friedman. Social psychologists at Columbia University, the authors use survey data about the political attitudes of students and various other groups to discuss the process of radicalization of certain students and the characteristics that differentiate those who became radicalized from those who did not. Donald Light and John Spiegel’s edited volume The Dynamics of University Protest tackles the question of why the protests of the 1960s began and the circumstances surrounding their demise, then explores the structural dynamics of protest that the contributors believe was understudied during the era. Considered collectively, these early surveys reflect an immediate reaction to and analysis of the large-scale student unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s. Not only do their authors offer a descriptive analysis of past student protests, but they contribute to understanding the ways in which scholars first attempted to interpret the impact of college student activism on society and higher education.

Recently published works on activism extend the scope of analysis and interpretation into contemporary issues and incidents. For example, Jim Downs and Jennifer Manion’s edited volume Taking Back the Academy!: History of Activism, History as Activism incorporates an international perspective in their collection of essays derived from a 2002 conference held at Columbia University, using the lens of history as an academic discipline to study political and social activism since the 1960s. Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, by Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood, is essential for understanding the distinctive ways that conservative college students forged their own identity and articulated their conservatism through specific actions and organizations on campus.

Several surveys examine critically the history of African American student activism in higher education. These works include the already mentioned Black Campus Movement published in 2012 by Ibram Rogers, and also Fabio Rojas’s From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, in which the author describes the emergence of the Black Student Movement in the 1960s and analyzes demands by activists to create black studies programs and advocate for hiring more diverse faculty and administrators. White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education, by Noliwe Rooks, also examines the development of black studies programs, academic departments, and research centers and the underlying historical and social changes that created the conditions for change. Rooks also reveals the internal struggle to define black studies as a distinct discipline within the African American academic community. Martha Biondi’s The Black Revolution on Campus is a particularly introspective investigation of the Black Student Movement and its impact throughout higher education. Her first chapters document the movement’s impact at selected campuses to illustrate the national scope of the protests, and she concludes by examining its outcomes, particularly in black studies programs and community-based initiatives. In Black Students in the Ivory Tower: African American Student Activism at the University of Pennsylvania, 1967–1990, Wayne Glasker relies on administrative records to write his historical survey of black student activism at one institution, framing events around concepts of assimilation, ethnic and cultural pluralism, and group self-organization and nationalism. Also of note is William Exum’s Paradoxes of Protest: Black Student Activism in a White University, in which the author examines black student unrest at the predominantly white New York University. He presents the history of strategies utilized by protesters to advocate for greater racial integration and equity, creating the conditions whereby institutions came to be more responsive to the needs of black students as an unrepresented group.

Works Cited