The time period many of us think of as “the Sixties” — for now, we’ll place it at roughly 1963 to 1974 — is reaching its 50th anniversary.
This will doubtless produce a flood of think-pieces, retrospectives, grasps at clarity and, from time to time, outright revisionist spin, as the still-lively Baby Boom generation continues to tangle with its legacy.
But I think the history of that period is a little too hazy and complex to produce many clear-cut conclusions, even now.
This week we drop in on a late-’60s college commencement, where some of the decade’s big questions get grappled with in public:
I’ve written at some length about my Aunt Elaine’s tumultuous two years of grad school at Boston University.
I’ve only occasionally mentioned, though, that she earned an undergraduate degree from what was then Southern Connecticut State College (now University) before going on to BU. June 7, 1969, found my grandparents and great-grandmother headed up to New Haven to attend her commencement.
It just so happens that the 1969 edition of the Laurel, the Southern Connecticut State yearbook, is online.
You have to pay to see all the pages in full detail, but a page summing up that year’s commencement can be easily read. I’ll reproduce the relevant passage here.
(I’m not sure if there’s a copyright issue in reproducing this chunk of text. But if the copyright belongs to anybody, it ain’t the people who are trying to make me pay to read it. So I’m gonna go ahead and copy the text. I believe the Class of ’69 referred to this as “sticking it to The Man.”)
Anyway, here’s part of what was said that day:
ln a departure from tradition a member of the graduating class, Frank Wargo, delivered the Commencement address. He called today’s college student protesters “a distinct minority who do not represent the feeling of 98 per cent of the students across the country.” “That 98 per cent,” Wargo said, “is the ‘Other Voice,’ and somehow it must be heard above the protesters.”
In his address Wargo said, “At 6:30 every evening when Americans sit down in front of their television sets or pick up their newspapers to see and hear what is going on in our country, they always seem to hear about that two per cent. It is no wonder, then, why the American public is being turned on by the younger generation.
“The rest, the overwhelming majority,” Wargo said, “are rarely seen or heard. But they’re there. They go into industry, business or teaching, they enroll in graduate school or join the Peace Corps or go into the service.”
“These are the people who help keep our country strong, these are the people who go unnoticed, but who are always there. Ask the two per cent what they want or where they are going and most of them won’t be able to give you an answer.”
Wargo conceded change was both healthy and necessary, but that it must be accomplished in a non-violent manner because “violence begets violence.”
“Somehow,” he concluded, “the voice of the 98 per cent must be heard above the protesters so that at 6:30 when Americans pick up their newspapers or turn on their television sets and see our colleges and universities in the hands of that small minority and throw their hands in the air and ask what is wrong with our younger generation, they will hear that ‘Other Voice’ saying: ‘We are here, we are trying hard, won’t you please give us a chance?”
Young Mr. Wargo went on to make the “Other Voice” proud. He earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning, worked for 30 years, served on several town government boards and commissions, and has been active in community organizations.
It’s not my intent to pick his speech apart with the hindsight of 45 years. In any event, I imagine my grandparents pretty well agreed with him as they sat in the crowd and heard him speak.
Still, his address raises some challenging questions in retrospect.
- Just how big was the “two percent”? Of course the real hardcore radicals made up a small minority of the student population in 1969 — probably less, even, than 2 percent.
But what of all the kids, like my aunt, who never threw a rock or burned a draft card, but attended demonstrations and came to oppose the war?
What percentage of young America really did have significant concerns with the way the country was being run? How many of them discerned in the Nixon administration a hostility and dishonesty that turned out to be very much real?
I suspect the opinions and positions of college-age America covered every stop on the spectrum, with plenty of gray in between, and summing it up was much more complicated than a simple 2-percent-vs.-98-percent breakdown. I’m not sure historians will ever get a firm handle on it, at any rate.
- What did they want? The assertion that the radical wing of American youth didn’t know what it wanted or where it was going seems doubtful. Were the Weathermen truly that vague about their ideals?
I would imagine that a pretty big swath of the 98 percent were the ones who didn’t know what they wanted or where they were going. They were the ones who sat in late-night dorm-room bull sessions asking questions like:
- “Should I go to Vietnam, or go to Canada?”
– “Should I go to work for a company that makes materials used to fight the war?”
– “Do I want to work for a nonprofit in the inner city and make a difference, or get a corporate job and set myself up with some money?”
– “This country seems pretty well broken. Do we need some kind of revolution to make this society work the way it was designed to?”
Valid enough questions, one and all; and all confounding to future historians trying to get any sort of unified handle on the generation. They wanted any number of things, and the paths to most of them were winding and unclear.
- Who won? The commencement speech — at least, the quoted part — asks that the older generation recognize the efforts of the kids who stayed on the straight and narrow, because they’re the ones who “keep this country strong.” (There’s an implication there that dissent is un-American and leads to weakness, but we’ll let it lay.)
We know the real hardcore revolutionaries of the ’60s didn’t achieve what they wanted. I wonder how many of the 98-percenters did.
Most of them, I suspect, joined The System and worked for 30 or 40 years to make the trains run on time … at the end of which, the country was still broken in a whole bunch of ways.
Most of them tried, as the speech said they would; I imagine only a small minority (2 percent, perhaps?) set forth to line their pockets and the hell with everything else.
And America, like the Class of ’69, is far too complex for an easy answer. No one could really expect one generation to sort out all its problems and challenges.
Still, when historians look back 50 or 100 or 200 years later and try to summarize what that generation truly achieved, I wonder how the lot of them — the bomb-throwers and the teachers and the ditch-diggers and the Peace Corpsmen — will be judged. How much of their diverse vision were they able to make real?
It will be interesting to see how much of that judgment the Baby Boomers will be able to guide or stamp before they fade away. History hasn’t passed from their hands yet, but it will, as it does to every generation.
I don’t pretend to know the answer myself. My area of historical specialty is the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut; the big-picture stuff is going to have to come from someone smarter and better-versed.
So we’ll leave off with the image of a lawn full of capped-and-gowned graduates, their motivation clear and their ideals high, beseeching their older generation for their chance.
They got it, anyway.