This is one of a series of older articles and excerpts from older articles put online by John Ray as a public service. The articles concerned are in general otherwise available only by special request to a University or other major library. The article below is reproduced in full.
The American Spectator, January, 1980, Vol. 13 (No. 1). pp. 27-28.
MY LIFE WITH "THE KIDS"
By Herbert I. London
The age of the sixties passed, but for me it left none too soon. I confronted student radicals and found them to be intolerant, inhumane, and insipid. But the key point-is that they prevented me from doing what the university paid me for doing, and prevented my students from obtaining the knowledge they had a right to receive.
I could not-in fact, still cannot- accept the distinction between "creative oppression," which radical students maintained was essential for a responsive university, and repressive oppression, of which I was alleged to be culpable. Whenever I think about this alleged distinction, I'm reminded of Dostoevsky, who wrote that "the difference between left and right wing oppression is like the difference between cat and dog excrement -- any way you look at it, it's still excrement. "
It is painful to recall those days, but it is worth doing so in the interest of setting the record straight. On a spring day in 1969, I received a visit from a student who demanded to see my files. He said he represented a student revolutionary action group interested in protecting students from "political harassment." As the elected ombudsman representing student grievances, I found the request (I would not acquiesce to a "demand") most unusual. When I inquired about it, he said, "Because you're a conservative, we don't believe you can adjudicate radical claims fairly." Since I applied no political test to the cases I examined, and since I had only the power to recommend matters to the dean, the charge seemed silly, and I dismissed it out of hand. That settled the issue, or so I thought.
Two days later a contingent of revolutionary action students visited my office, again demanding that my files be opened for inspection. I smiled, clenched my fist, asked them whence they derived the authority to make this "request," and invited them to leave. They refused. A spokesman, obviously trying to muster all the courage he had, said, "Suppose we take matters into our own hands." I softly responded, "You're welcome to try. " There were no takers, but one of the self-styled revolutionaries asked, "Why do you think the protection of property is worth as much as the protection of person?" Since my file cabinet contained the only copy of a manuscript that took two years of my life to complete, I pointed out that I might-depending on the circumstances- be willing to put up a fight in order to protect my property. Moreover, I argued that I was protecting the confidentiality, of my records which, if abrogated, could cause harm to individuals who trusted me with personal information. To make the matter perfectly clear, I mentioned the case of a homosexual who felt discriminated against by one of his professors. This illustration of nameless characters seemed to do the trick. The gang of political inquisitors left, mumbling obscenities and threats about future confrontations.
Almost one year to the week later, I was once again put to a test by student radicals. This time the issue had nothing at all to do with the confidentiality of my files - my term as ombudsman having expired- but with the equally important matter of using force to inhibit classroom attendance.
This was the year of the strike, of the Cambodian invasion and Kent State. On May 11, 1970, the faculty council, of which I was a member met to discuss what action we might recommend to the entire faculty in response to campus agitation. After considerable wrangling over the wording of a resolution, it was agreed that: "At their option [my italics], students may be excused from classes and finals for the duration of the semester." Considering what appeared to be their sincere--expressions of concern, it seemed only reasonable to accommodate anti-war protestors, yet at the same time give those who wished to attend class the opportunity to exercise that right.
While students demonstrated in front of the auditorium, the faculty met to discuss the motion. Despite a few guerrilla-theater types who shouted "shut it down," on the whole the meeting went smoothly. Those who opposed the motion maintained that the "heinous crime" in Cambodia warranted symbolic action by the faculty in the form of a total strike. From my perpective, this position totally disregarded the rights of those who had paid for and wished to attend classes. Finding myself the reluctant leader of a caucus that felt uneasy about its position, I prepared my first major address to the faculty with caution and tact. I spoke of the universally felt remorse at the Kent State tragedy, the need to preserve academic freedom, and the importance of respecting the rights of non-striking students.
In the vote that followed, the faculty approved the council motion by a margin of 120 to 103. This meant that school would remain open, but demonbstrators would have the right to be absent without penalty. The faculty,approved, as an olive branch the minority, another motion which opposed United States military action in Southeast Asia.
But in those days it was one thing to pass a motion and quite another to follow it through. Some students were so outraged by the soon-designated "pusillanimous decision" of the faculty that they vowed to shut down the college. The very next day there was a cordon of student radicals in front of the building in which my class was to be given. Anyone who entered the building encountered fierce invective and jostling. But I felt if my students were in the classroom, I had a moral and legal obligation to be there as well. I pushed my way through the angry crowd amid shouts "fascist pig, fascist pig!"
I had no choice but to give my lecture over the ubiquitous bullhorns. For an hour and a half I shouted. Exhausted at the end of the session, I discovered to my astonishment that mine was the only class that had been held.
It was apparent to me that academe during that time bore a strong resemblance to Elsinore. Professors could not make decisions; when they did, it was at meetings hastily called, on poorly drafted motions, after debate unworthy of being called rational. In the end, all the talk about conscience and morality did not mean much when pitted against student pressure. With little or no consideration of the issues, university students were willing to jeopardize two hundred years of tradition in the name of "the revolution." For a perceived moral principle, they were willing to disregard the rights and welfare of others. It is patently extreme to compare this era with the rise of Nazism. Yet on one issue, noted by Peter Gay in The Weimar Culture, there does appear to be a similarity: As the need for absolute morality increases, the concern for human decency decreases.
Several springs passed, and I managed to stay out of the path of the hurricane. Perhaps I was so enervated by the events in May 1970 that I could no longer marshal the strength to oppose the latest activist cause. On the other hand, there were far fewer causes.
This condition, however, did not prevent anti-war protestors from using their "idealism" to try to solve other problems. In 1975 I met such an idealist. She was 17, had been raised in upstate New York, and was pumped up with social justice slogans and eager to assist the downtrodden. She used her university experience as a way to get involved with the "real people" in the inner city. After several months of working on a project on the Lower East Side of New York, she was brutally beaten to death.
I decided to tell her story. What I wrote was a fable that intentionally altered the facts of this one case, but, I hoped, contained the spirit of a generational tale. The result of my efforts was another confrontation with radicals.
These people maintained that I had maligned the girl's character in order to convey a message: "a condemnation of idealism practiced by today's youth." I responded by pointing out that the purpose of my story was to prevent episodes of this kind from being repeated. At the very least, I maintained, idealism should be tempered by a healthy respect for risks. I wasn't good deeds that I criticized, but an inability to recognize out own limitations.
That explanation fell on deaf ears. A campaign was launched in the student newspaper and in mimeographed handouts for my resignation. At this poiunt I was dean of a college, proud of the progress my division had achieved, and generally well regarded by colleagues and students as a sound administrator. I would not, and could not, permit this rabble to drive me from my position, particularly since most of my opponents were neither students in my college nor students in the university.
One week prior to their demonstrations against me, I had surgery on my knee and was forced to use crutches. Even so, the demonstrators pelted me with eggs and tomatoes, and forcibly prevented me from entering my office. They also alleged that I was a racist and elitist because the white victim in my story was murdered in an ostensibly non-white neighborhood. However, I had never mentioned the race of her assailant.
It was amusing to see signs in front of my office which read, "London is racist" - I immediately thought of Anglophobes who were protesting British immigration policy. My amusement came to an abrupt end when the demonstrators had a CBS affiliate cover their pseudo-event for the six o'clock local news. Since only the demonstrators were interviewed on camera, I called the station to offer my side of the story. A reporter listened politely to my account for about ten minutes and then said, "If I accept your explanation then we have no news story." Then he hung up.
I managed to weather this storm, too; I kept my position, and ultimately had a chance to refute some of the charges made against me. But it wasn't easy. One now hears glib denunciations of the McCarthy era on campuses all over the country. Yet very few of those doing the denouncing trouble to examine their own actions during the sixties and early seventies. They are self-righteous and intolerant, and choose facile slogans for hard thought. A generation has been paralyzed by its moral outrage.
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