On April 18, 1963, a year before the Berkeley Free Speech Movement made national headlines, eight hundred Oberlin College students collected outside of Finney Chapel at 11:00 a.m. Many carried picket signs with slogans like “End Creeping Ivyism,” “Participation, Not Paternalism,” and “Endowment Isn’t Everything.” Their protest was silent and dignified, a signal of their respect for other members of the community who might not agree with them. They protested for a variety of reasons. They were angry about new large, impersonal dorms that were being built to replace smaller, house-like structures, and they wanted instead to see the cooperative system expanded. They were unhappy with the College’s strict social rules. And they felt that the administration was inaccessible. At noon College President Robert Kenneth Carr gave a speech, attempting to address issues of student concern, and the picketers filed into Finney Chapel in to listen.
This demonstration was one of the earliest signs of what the sixties would hold for Oberlin College. The year before, two Oberlin students had helped to write the Port Huron Statement, one of the most influential documents for student activists of the era. Oberlin’s students were, on the whole, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in the universities, and looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” They shared many things with their counterparts at other schools, not the least of which was the experience of growing up in 1950s America, a time of prosperity but also of repression of dissent.
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One of the most important goals of this paper is to add to the historiography of the New Left the perspective of a small liberal arts college. Many national histories of the New Left make passing reference to the importance of schools like Oberlin and Swarthmore to the development of the movement during the early sixties, but so far no study has focused on such a campus. Doug Rossinow points out, “It could hardly be more ironic that we have no ‘histories from the bottom up’ of the new left, the political movement that bequeathed this idea to the historical profession.” Rossinow emphasizes the importance of local histories to understanding a movement that was based on grassroots control and decentralized organization. National overviews show only a piece of the New Left and generally fail to explain much of what was happening on campuses where the bulk of the New Left was situated. Several authors, including Kirkpatrick Sale in SDS, have pointed out the disconnect between the campuses and the national leadership of the major New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which grew significantly worse from 1965 until the collapse of the organization. This again highlights the importance of understanding the campus situation in addition to the national scene.
Rossinow examines the movement at the University of Texas in Austin. His work adds to those studying Berkeley and Columbia written by W.J. Rorabaugh and Jerry L. Avorn, respectively, and other works focusing on these two schools. But there remain no works that look at small liberal arts colleges. There were significant circumstances unique to smaller campuses. It was more difficult to receive national publicity, and often there was a sense of isolation from what was really going on. Most importantly, the ways in which different groups on campus, including radical students, conservative students, faculty, administrators, interacted was necessarily changed by the size of the institution with corresponding differences in the thought and character of the movement.
In tracing the ideology of the movement, two authors have taken approaches similar to mine. Wini Breines in The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968 argues that the attempt to form community was at the heart of New Left politics. Breines closely links community with participatory democracy. She also explores some of the tensions created in attempting to effectively organize using this principle. In doing so she focuses on both national SDS and especially the Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAP). Breines disputes the notion that participatory democracy and the corresponding focus on decentralization were what ultimately led to the failure of the New Left. She argues instead that this was the strength of the movement and it was the failure to implement these ideals successfully that actually led to the failure of the movement.
Douglas Rossinow in The Politics of Authenticity argues that what drove the movement at the University of Texas was the search for authenticity. His concept of authenticity, essentially the opposite of alienation and materialism, resembles Breine’s notion of community. Rossinow argues, as I do, that ultimately the search for authenticity turns inward to activists’ own lives instead of outward to the larger society. The attempt to transform America into a more authentic culture did not succeed, but radicals were able to create smaller communities often “on the fringes of a university, drenched in the spirit of participatory democracy, and linked by the common radical itinerary of the era to similar communities around the country.” The Oberlin co-ops are an example of this phenomenon.
One of the major disputes among historians of the New Left is the relationship of the movement to both the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. I argue, as have Breines, Rossinow, Todd Gitlin, and perhaps most importantly Sara Evans, that civil rights was central to the development of the student movement. However, at Oberlin the debate over social rules led to the questioning of the local structure of authority in a way that was not true for the civil rights movement. The significance of campus reforms to the development of a radical student movement again emphasizes the importance of campus-based histories.
The relationship of the New Left to the Vietnam War was more complex. The war turned the student movement into a mass movement and radicalized many students on many campuses, but it also consumed the New Left. Several authors, including Rossinow, have argued that the anti-war movement derailed the New Left from what it should really have been about -- creating fundamental changes based on a carefully thought out critique of American life. I argue that Oberlin radicals were no less overwhelmed by the war, and many of their energies went into the anti-war effort that might otherwise have gone to other types of radical organizing.
Perhaps the most disputed issue in New Left historiography is why the New Left collapsed in the late sixties and early seventies. Because of the limits of my chronology I will not address this issue in detail. However, I will explore the transition of the radical student movement at Oberlin into identity politics. As Sara Evans has argued, identity politics was a direct outgrowth of the New Left, and this was also the case at Oberlin.
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In 1963 many Oberlin students were already extremely involved in the civil rights movement, which would continue to be the most popular cause at Oberlin until 1965. Large fund drives sent money South to civil rights groups. Some students went South themselves in a variety of functions. The historical connection to the abolitionist movement was very much a part of Oberlin’s self image, and the commitment to civil rights was community-wide. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858, in which Oberlin students and townspeople rescued an escaped slave about to be returned to the South, was often referred to with pride, as was Oberlin’s history of interracial education. (Oddly, there was very little discussion about the very small number of people of color attending the school in the early sixties.)
Increasingly from 1965 on, another issue would overshadow civil rights in the minds of Oberlin students: the Vietnam War. The war at first concerned only the most radical students who studied foreign affairs in great detail, but it soon came to concern the whole campus. Oberlin students participated in peace marches in Washington, picketed draft boards in Cleveland, held teach-ins and discussions, and some eventually tried to stop the College from cooperating in any way with the United States military.
Another issue of student concern that ran throughout the sixties at Oberlin was social rules. In the early sixties, Oberlin men could only visit women in their dorms from 2-4 on Sunday afternoons, and the door had to be open. There was literally no opportunity for a couple to be alone together. Coats and ties were required at dinner. Women were locked into their dormitories at night at a specified time. No alcohol was allowed anywhere on campus, and students could not even use, let alone own, a car without permission of the dean. The level of discontent with the social situation was extremely high, and the rules were routinely broken.
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Several ideas were invoked again and again during the debates among Oberlin’s students, faculty and administrators. One of these ideas was community. Community had two aspects to it, procedure and substance. Part of the debate of the sixties was over for what substantive values the Oberlin community stood. Another part of the debate was over procedural values and how to build community.
Oberlin students in the early sixties believed in participatory democracy. They thought that an essential aspect of community was the personal investment that people make when they are part of the decision-making process. According to this conception, when people get together to discuss issues and make decisions as a group, community is formed and people become committed to finding the best possible outcomes. In the Oberlin context, this meant that the students, faculty, and administration would be partners in making decisions for the whole community. This conception gave no decision-making power to the trustees because they were not community members in the same sense.
The substance of the Oberlin community for radical students was first and foremost the support of activism. In the early sixties, that meant support for civil rights and in the later sixties it meant opposition to the war in Vietnam. They saw this as the heritage of the College and were inclined to think that anyone who did not support this substantive aspect of community did not understand the real Oberlin. One alumnus remembers, “We sort of felt we owned Oberlin so to speak and when Carr or [someone] would take a stand that seemed contrary to that we just kind of figured he didn’t have the truth about what Oberlin was about.” Other aspects of the activist students’ notion of community included respect for other members of the community and valuing individuality.
President Robert Carr had a notion of community that was substantially different from that of students in both procedural and substantive values. Carr was a highly thoughtful and principled man, and he stuck to his principles under difficult circumstances. In terms of procedure, Carr believed that entering into a community was an act of giving up rights in favor of authority and stability. In 1964 he stated, “Individual freedom for people like you and me is most meaningful and most satisfying when it is exercised in an enduring social context marked by large measures of law and order.” He stressed to students that part of entering the Oberlin community was giving up the right to decide for themselves what best served their personal development. Instead they must adhere to community standards such as coats and ties at dinner and controlled social interaction. Carr advocated the “need to balance the freedom of the individual and the welfare of the group.” This process of balancing was at the heart of his notion of community. At the same time, Carr expected, as the authority figure, to be the one doing the balancing.
For Carr community also meant maintaining a high level of civility in all discussions. He was deeply upset by coercive protests because they did not fit his idea of how a community deals with controversy. He did not believe that civility could be maintained in situations where one group of community members prevented another from taking certain actions, and he was essentially correct. Students who hoped to maintain community while using such tactics were foolish to think that would be possible.
Carr’s procedural notion of community did not conflict with the idea of running Oberlin as a corporation. Carr, who was seen as a bureaucrat by many, embraced the idea of corporation as a useful model. Corporation, a top-down model of organization, conflicted directly with the student notion of participatory democracy and also with support of progressive activism since corporations, which students defined as businesses whose basic goal was to make profits, tended to act as conservative forces.
In terms of substantive values Carr believed that community meant first and foremost academic freedom. To him academic freedom meant respect for diverse viewpoints and willingness to let those you disagree with speak. Carr believed that one of the great aspects of a college is its ability to provide a marketplace of ideas in which academic debate and discussion would lead to the best solutions. For Carr, free speech was at the heart of both democracy and academia. Because he felt so strongly about free speech, Carr was very upset by students’ attempts to block military recruitment and very encouraging of students’ work against the House Un-American Activities Committee. He saw any limitations on free speech as antithetical to his most important values.
Carr also supported a community commitment to civil rights. In 1963 he celebrated “that aspect of extracurricular activity of the past year that, to my way of thinking, revealed Oberlin students at their very best: their involvement in our nation’s present effort to bring greater justice and equality of opportunity . . . to that ten per cent of our population that is Negro . . . there was . . . hardly a student on the Oberlin campus last year who was not caught up in some meaningful way in the present effort to understand and to solve America’s race problem.” Carr was proud of students’ work on civil rights. He did not, however, support the anti-war movement. He did not believe that the issue was directly connected to the campus, so he saw no need for community action on the war. In addition, Carr supported the war effort at least in the mid-sixties.
As was also true of students, Carr’s procedural and substantive values were sometimes in conflict. His unwillingness to bend on certain values, like free speech, undermined his argument that community should be about balancing individual freedoms and group needs. In the end he had to admit that there were some freedoms that could not be balanced. Interestingly, these were the very freedoms that students were willing to balance against other values, but the freedom that Carr wanted to restrict, essentially the freedom of self-determination for students, was one on which students became less and less willing to compromise.
A third conception of community was the in loco parentis model that many faculty and older administrators advocated. This version of community was like a family in which the students are the children and the administration and faculty are the parents. This model of community was used to support the system of social rules. It also meant that many faculty members and administrators went out of their way to get to know students outside of the classroom. Many professors made themselves available to students during all hours both at home and in their offices. When disruptive demonstrations occurred, these caring adults were always on the scene to monitor what was going on and to see what they could do. Their goal was to serve as role models and aid students in every aspect of their development. Not all faculty members felt this way, but the idea of in loco parentis, with all its good and bad qualities, was a powerful one at Oberlin in the sixties. The family vision of community that accompanied it was significantly different from that of students and President Carr.
Although I will focus mainly on the difficulties with forming community, there were many ways in which Oberlin was a community during the sixties despite the limitations of that community. Students had many common experiences through required courses and assemblies. Every night, students sat down to dinner together in the dining halls or the co-ops and had an opportunity to talk to one another. Oberlin also was small and isolated. All of these things tended to foster a certain sense of community.
The conflicts of the sixties were essentially over the meaning of the Oberlin community. This conflict is seen first over social rules, a controversy which persisted throughout the sixties, and then over the Vietnam War. In the late sixties, activists focused on achieving student power. Student power and the attempt to form smaller student communities were both an extension of students’ original ideas about community and a reaction against the failure to create the Oberlin community they initially envisioned.
Jon Rush, “Orderly Student March, Protest College Policies,” Oberlin Review, 19 April 1965, 1.
“The Port Huron Statement,” in“Takin’ it to the streets”: A Sixties Reader, ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 61.
Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998): 8-9.
Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).
 Jerry Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall: A History of the Columbia Crisis (New York: Antheneum Press, 1969); W.J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War: the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Wini Breines, The Great Refusal: Community and Organization in the New Left,1962-1968 (New York: Prager Publishers, 1982).
Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantham Books, 1987); Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
The classic articulation of participatory democracy was given in “The Port Huron Statement,” 67-68; participatory democracy in the New Left has been discussed by numerous historians including Breines, Gitlin, Rossinow, and Sale.
Peter Blood, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 29 Nov. 2001.
Robert K. Carr, “Opening Assembly Speech,” Oberlin College, 22 Sept. 1964, 4-5, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 13, Oberlin College Archives (OCA).
Robert K. Carr, “Oberlin: Challenge and Choice,” Opening Assembly Speech, Oberlin College, 17 Sept. 1963, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 13, OCA.