Campus Awakenings

I’ll admit it. When I came to Alaska in 1972, I was a flaming hippie with an unbelievably big and unruly Afro. Yep, I was doing cultural appropriation long before anyone had even put those words together. I came here from a world of unrest in America. Campuses around the country had erupted in the sixties in protest of the Viet Nam war and support of the civil rights movement. Despite being in a very conservative Catholic women’s college, I managed to participate in a lot of the activities of the sixties.

But then something seemed to happen in America. It was called the 70s. The 70s started out as a continuation of the 60s in most ways. Protests continued and Nixon was considered as bad, if not worse, than Johnson. But eventually, we became more interested in drinking, drugs, dancing, and disco than the wider world around us. John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever became the symbols of a decade whose clothing, music and glitz defined us.

Meanwhile, Nixon did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves – he destroyed his own administration and legacy thanks to hitting that button that taped all those conversations. And that quickly the sixties were in the rearview mirror and, god help us, cocaine and the 80s were approaching with lightning rapidity.

It seemed as though our college campuses went into shut down after the 60s. Peace reigned, mostly. Paying for increasingly expensive degrees took over where once we had worried about civil rights and stupid wars. And then it seemed as if our campuses went from peaceful to sleepy to comatose.

Colleges are there to express and exchange ideas. But the only discussions that seemed to be happening were how to get out from under the horrendous debt that degree would leave one with.

But now, suddenly, it’s as though our campuses have awakened from a long, deep slumber and are once again the sites of unrest, protests, vigils – the whole nine yards of rebellion that shows that at least some students are paying attention to the world outside of their campus.

I’m not sure who is right or wrong with these protests. I just know when police descend on campus to arrest students protesting something they view as wrong in the world, my youth returns to me with a vengeance. Suddenly I’m back in Washington DC in the fall of 1967 and I’m facing tear gas, police, and National Guard. I, personally, was there to sit and do acid at the Pentagon with Timothy Leary in the hope of getting the building to levitate so we could shake all the evil out of it. I don’t think it worked but at least we tried.

The thing we need to probably keep in mind is that unrest on campuses forces dialogs that may be uncomfortable but that are necessary. Those protesters of the sixties changed the course of America for the next fifty years. Everything from pushing for environmental protections to women’s rights to a lowered voting age came from students who would not accept the status quo. Yes, we may owe America an apology for not giving up the power we wrested from the establishment in the 60s. Yes, we may now be the establishment. In fact, in the actions taken by the last two surviving relics of the age – you know, the guys who are running for president again – we see the establishment in full force. As Walt Kelly wrote in his comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” Any students of the sixties should see that we have become the establishment – we have seen the enemy and they are us.

And we see police once again on our campuses. Students were shot and killed on campuses in the sixties during protests. We can only hope that lesson has been learned and not forgotten. Don’t shoot the students.

I don’t know how long these protests will last or if they will have the completely upending results that the protests of the sixties did. I’m just happy to see students involved in something other than their student debt. What’s happening in the world matters. I’m glad they are noticing.