"We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
So began the Port Huron Statement, the student manifesto that Tom Hayden drafted in 1962. When Hayden died on Sunday, most accounts emphasized his many different roles in the tumultuous world he inherited: civil-rights organizer, antiwar protester, California state lawmaker.
But Hayden and his fellow activists were educational reformers, too, focusing much of their dissent on the institution where they were housed: the modern university. Put simply, Hayden believed that college should teach people to critique the world around them. But too many colleges functioned more like assembly lines, stamping out students who would conform rather than question.
The problem started with in loco parentis, the doctrine that colleges should act like parents by enforcing curfews and strict separation of the sexes in dormitories. Then there were the professors, who eschewed broad moral issues in favor of dull courses in their academic specialties.
At the top of the institutions, finally, administrators sought to bring in more tuition dollars with the promise of an easy, pleasant experience. They also tried to reduce expenses via gigantic lecture classes and new technologies, including machines that automated instruction.
"Colleges develop teaching machines, mass-class techniques, and TV education to replace teachers," the Port Huron Statement warned, "to cut costs in education and make the academic community more efficient and less wasteful." The statement’s italics punctuated its skepticism about the corporate values of the university, which had sacrificed the "liberating heritage of higher learning" for the soulless rhetoric of the business world.
No wonder so many students marched mindlessly from class to class in a grim quest for credentials and status. "There is not much willingness to take risks," the Port Huron Statement noted, "no real conception of personal identity except one manufactured in the image of others, no real urge for personal fulfillment except to be almost as successful as the very successful people."
That was a tall order. But over the ensuing decade, American students fulfilled many parts of it. They overturned in loco parentis, arguing that young adults who could vote in elections — and die in the Vietnam War — should also have the right to conduct their sexual lives as they pleased. They won academic programs in formerly neglected areas, including women’s and black studies. And they wove political protest into the fabric of American higher education, which witnessed 350 student strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That spirit is still alive on American campuses, as last fall’s burst of student protest illustrated. Like their forebears a half-century ago, students demanded more attention to minority experiences in the curriculum. They also called on colleges to recruit more diverse students and faculty members, a common refrain in the 1960s as well.
But there were differences, too, which speak to broader changes in our culture. Student protesters today increasingly phrase their appeals in psychological idioms, denouncing callous peers and professors for harming their mental health. Hence the call for trigger warnings, designed to protect students’ supposedly fragile psyches from microaggressions and other insults.
And whereas Hayden’s generation aimed to free students from administrative oversight, today’s students often seek more of it. They demand speech codes barring offensive remarks, "bias-incident response teams" to investigate them, and mandatory sensitivity trainings to correct them. They also call on colleges to hire chief diversity officers and other new staff members, generating ever more heft and power for the administrative apparatus that Hayden wanted to reduce.
What’s missing today is any larger critique of the university’s meaning and purpose. Tom Hayden saw it as a potentially humanizing force, liberating us to think and act in new ways. But that’s a tough sell today, when students are obviously concerned about their economic futures. So they’re more inclined to see college as a path to a better job, not to a better world.
In 1966, four years after Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement, 86 percent of incoming college freshmen said that "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" was one of the qualities they found important and only 42 percent said that "becoming very well-off financially" was important, according to The American Freshman, a survey administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. By 2014, these figures had almost completely reversed: only 45 percent identified a meaningful life philosophy as an important goal, while 82 percent said financial security was important.
So even today’s most "radical" college protesters rarely question the idea that college exists to help them secure more money and status. And whereas previous generations condemned new technologies for inhibiting the liberal goals of higher education, students today are more likely to embrace them as a quick route to an easy A and higher pay.
"What is really important?" asked Tom Hayden, in the Port Huron Statement. "Can we live in a different and better way?" Those are questions that all of our students should be asking, no matter what their career aspirations. And the colleges that house them should help them find answers, instead of simply moving them along toward whatever might await them in the world they will inherit.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016.)