Essay | Memories of the 60s by Leonard Quart

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Leonard Quart


Memories of the 60s

I have been trying hard to emotionally survive the Trump era, while living with feelings of revulsion and hopelessness about every one of that pathological liar and demagogue’s tweets, utterances and political acts. One way of dealing with the situation is thinking back to the 60s, which for me was an era when dreams of self-transformation fused with a belief in creating a small revolution in higher education, and large changes in the body politic. I know, that given what we have lived through, it all sounds naïve, but much of what we engaged in then was dependent on real or willed innocence.      

I spent the sixties teaching film, literature and American politics and culture in an experimental branch of City University, located in the most conservative and whitest of New York’s boroughs—Staten Island. The aims of the majority of the school’s Catholic, blue-collar students were vocational—to become teachers or engineers and move a rung up the class ladder. There was, however, a large vocal minority, mostly from the same Catholic background, who began to raise forceful questions about a society they saw as materialistic, spiritually empty and unjust. Many of them were sufficiently alienated to explore alternative life styles and values — rural communes, artistic collectives, left politics, and women’s consciousness. The questions were usually raised without their breaking completely, from the world of their parents or with the idea of pursuing conventional, if socially useful, careers.

For me the sixties were the headiest time of my life. I took part in the anti-war movement’s marches and protests, and in a national group of radical faculty members discussing educational reform; but I gave most of my energies to my own college trying to shape what I thought would be a small revolution in higher education—a utopian island.  I had deep feelings for my students, who were vulnerable, self-doubting, and emotionally open, and sometimes truly courageous and fearless. At times their insecurities would move them to behave in an embarrassingly self-righteous and infantile manner that they couldn’t control. A few of them could sound like the most robotic of sectarian leftists mouthing tired slogans about “imperialism” “class struggle” and “fascism.” For most, however critical they were of American society, their politics never intellectually developed beyond anger against the war and a general distrust for authority and the “establishment.” They had strong political feelings and resentments, and could march in demonstrations, but had little will or desire for sustained political action. What they did do, in their inchoate way, was struggle against their familial and neighbourhood pasts to shape new identities for themselves, and find ways of relating to the society without compromising their newly forged ideals.

I committed myself to a variety of radical educational experiments that I felt were valuable, though the majority either self-destructed or were eliminated by the university within two or three years of their inception. Of course, there were students who abused the free form of many of the classes and lack of strict course requirements to slough off and treat it all as one big joke. Still, there were others who became passionately interested in film, fiction, Marx, Freud, Marcuse, the political left and the avant-garde, historical and sociological analyses of American society, and became active participants in shaping their own education. They may not have taken a structured set of courses, or acquired mastery of an academic discipline, but what they learned, affected and even transformed them.

As with every new venture, some of the experimental courses were half-baked (e.g. sensitivity groups, crafts, consciousness raising), and the energy of many of the faculty and students, after their initial enthusiasm, often flagged. We also quickly learned that participatory democracy was difficult to achieve. Students and faculty attempted to make programme decisions at disorderly and cacophonous communal meetings, which frequently seemed to disintegrate into self-indulgent rhetoric and bad performance art. Some of the faculty even did not bother to show up. Participatory democracy may have been a beautiful ideal, but we ultimately understood that leaders and a certain amount of bureaucratic procedure was a necessity for running an educational experiment.        

However, what I remember with pleasure is dealing with students who actively challenged my authority and beliefs—academic and personal. You could dismiss many of them as shrill and arrogant and you’d be right, but I loved that I repeatedly had to rethink and justify my beliefs about teaching and politics and look more deeply into my own behaviour and psyche. And teaching experimental courses continually demanded from me a heightened awareness and ability to respond to charged situations, for reading from old notes was seen by the students as unacceptable.

There were times I just wanted to retreat from the chaos, but more often I truly loved the intensity and unpredictability of it all: the constant meetings and strategy sessions; the midnight phone calls from students about personal and political matters; and even the masochistic faculty self-criticism sessions. Of course, I was less self-protective and infinitely more energetic and flexible then, and more ready to express my deepest feelings in public. I also fuelled myself (in opposition to all my instinctive skepticism and sense of ambiguity) with the fantasy that we could create a radically different university and society.

Today I no longer believe in grand political transformations. Given the limits of human nature and the political and economic values the majority of Americans adhere to, the best we can hope for are incremental improvements in our public life (e.g. a shoring up of Obamacare and reining in the private insurance companies, some limited gun control, campaign finance reform, and of course a more equitable tax structure). That would be a beginning, and I can think of much more including national day care, and making a dent in global warming. For since the sixties I have also become wary of the kind of vaporous talk about freedom that no longer has any resonance but can lead to nihilism and anarchy.

Still, the sixties for all its infantilism and radical posturing and murderous violence (e.g. the Weathermen and Black Panthers), did more than animate my life and work: it was also the last time in my life that there was a critical mass of people who wished to create a just, humane society. One could catalogue the positive effects of the 60s movement—the growth of gay and environmental consciousness, helping to end the Vietnam War, and most importantly, a cultural revolution that transformed the nature of the family, marriage, sexual morality, and education. One could also point out that this revolution may have its dark underside, where liberation could descend into libertinism.  However, my feelings for that time transcend intellectual balancing acts and tough-minded analyses. I recollect waking up each day thinking I was going to make a genuine difference in the way things worked, and if in the long run the world never did appreciably change, for half a decade my daily life felt altered in a significant way.


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