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A Guest Essay Give the Demonstrators Some Credit r l Austin The season for college commencement oratory has just passed, thank God. Judging by the excerpts in the papers and newsmagazines, the genre has not improved. The sonorities of Archibald MacLeish and the banalities of General Eisenhower continue to exemplify the fatuity with which the older generation advises and assesses those who, alas, are about to become fatuous themselves. Yet my pessimism can be qualified a bit, for in recent months college students have presented a remarkable face to the world. There was, primarily, the Berkeley incident, which in its turn spawned a rash of student protests on campuses across the nation. Young men and women continue to join the Peace Corps, to protest and demonstrate in the South, and to challenge our government’s dubious and awkwardly rationalized foreign policy. All these incidents and activities have perhaps become overly familiar and even tiresome to contemplate, but taken collectively I think they are worth a brief reconsideration as a sign of social health. It is especially interesting to contemplate the adult responses to the business at Berkeley last autumn. Basically these are only that their freedom of political activity on the Berkeley campus was suddenly curtailed as a result of conservative Republican disapproval but also angry in a more general way at Berkeley as a monolithic, soulless institution personifying everything crass and phony and careerist in middle-class American society, were dead right \(this view is most fervently ministration at Berkeley \(and the governor who hastily sent in police to break up what would normally have been a localized exploited by beatniks, left-wingers, fanatics, and the general scum of student society, confirms the irresponsibility and immaturity of the younger generation. The third response, though the most general, is nonsense, and masks, I suspect, a certain anti-intellectualism. Too many students and faculty seriously concerned The writer is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas. His article, “Are Money and Planning Enough?”, led off the Observer’s special issue on higher education in Texas earlier this year. He is a contributing editor of the Observer. 4 The Texas Observer Robert L. Montgomery about the issues joined hands to let the change of irresponsibility be plausible. Numbers 1 and 2 offer more enlightenment. Certainly the administration, in initially refusing to talk to students and in attempting to put down demonstrations arbitrarily, made martyrs and dramatized the presence of some of the conditions being protested. But above all Berkeley is big. It has 27,000 students; it is anonymous and bureaucratic ; its faculty, in many areas and for several reasons, has lost significant contact With students. The recent and very fine “CBS Reports” special on the Berkeley crisis exposed the mechanism of the place vividly and made plain the monstrous irritation that such an institution, whose very automatism and impersonality encourage similar characteristics in faculty and students, can generate. It would appear that the institution has begun to lose its purpose to provide the individual learning \(which is begun to exist for the sake of its own inner workings. In this sense, Berkeley and many other universities of like size are true images of our society, big, crowded, materiftlistic, commercial, and tempted to hypocrisies to preserve themselves. Higher education has nearly succumbed to being the handmaiden to the powerful social impulse that draws us to careers and to status of an unvaried, homogeneous nature. Those of us who are settled, reasonably successful adults can judge ourselves by our view of the Berkeley protests and others like it, for we react not to the idea of protest itself, but to its manner, which challenges what we have become.’ Demonstrators wear old clothes and long hair. They are young and passionately idealistic; they look like the sort who engage in drastic, unimaginable versions of free love; they don’t give a damn for what we say, what we are, or what we have achieved. They march around the White House and the LBJ Ranch \(that holy our generation is a collective McGeorge Bundy. It is natural that we should resent them and that, rather than look into our own situations to find their social diseases or look closely at the young people who seem so irreverent, we should simply deplore and view with alarm. But if natural, our response is also unwise and uncharitable. Last year and earlier I had some opportunity to know and observe students at the University of Texas engaged in protests and political activity of various kinds. They did not seem irresponsible. Some were naive and certainly inexperienced, but the one remarkable thing about all of them was their willingness to work hard and make personal sacrifices for what seemed to them good causes. In addition they were all motivated by an eagerness to experiment and they were independent. One might say that such students are in the mainstream of the American tradition \(though not, sadly, that tradition in the nority, even so they appear to me to be full of intellectual and moral health. The finest purpose of education is to free the mind and to a significant degree their minds have been freed and they have considerable courage of temperament, the ability to struggle for an unpopular cause in the face of immediate and often violent adult disapproval. Educators have, perhaps, done well with some students. Consider now how we react to the pranks we take to be characteristic of the fraternity mystique. Whatever the virtues of the Greek system, it is also noted for mindless rituals, pointless and sometimes orgiastic brawls, a fascination with Thunderbirds and fastbacks, Chamber of Commerce idealisms, a supine acceptance of herd values, and a compulsive need to demonstrate a virility which may or may not be only half-possessed \(a deep and pervasive anxiety in our culture, incidentally: muse for a starter on the competition of bankers and insurance men to see who can this our society accepts as the natural process of change from adolescence to manhood. I dwell, perhaps too exclusively, on the less admirable side of fraternity life not to suggest that that is all there is to it, but to demonstrate how complacently we accept these “horrors” because they do not really threaten us, they lead young men and women to the society we live in. It would be silly to suggest that every young person must carry a placard or wear faded jeans and long hair or join the Peace Corps or do anything else obviously noble. But those who choose to do so should be given some credit. Their frailties surely deserve at least as much tolerance as those of the young man who has already donned his business suit and uncritically accepted the compromises a business or professional career and suburban home may require. A fearful, defensive disapproval such as is now common damages the fabric of society far more than a willingness to value the free spirit of youth whatever its momentary deficiencies. \(,;