Friday, December 24, 2021

Ellen Schrecker's "The Lost Promise"

Ellen Schrecker is a retired professor of history at Yeshiva University and the author of numerous books, including No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, and The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s, and reported the following:
If the book’s readers reach page 99, they will have read only 28.7% of The Lost Promise. It’s a long book, but page 99, which deals with the immediate aftermath of the 1964 Free Speech crisis at Berkeley, comes at a major turning point in the story of how American higher education coped with the social and political upheavals of the 1960s.

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was the first and most well-known student protest of the entire decade. It provided a foretaste of what was to come – students taking over a campus building to protest an official policy and an administration under outside pressure calling in the police. As page 99 shows, some of Berkeley’s eminent, yet confused, professors first voted to support the students and then had second thoughts. Those regrets presage the academic community’s internal conflicts over the campus unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s that constitute a central theme of The Lost Promise.

Ten years ago when I began to work on this book, I did not plan to write the first comprehensive account of the most turbulent moment in the history of American higher education. My original project was a short quasi-memoir about my own cohort of faculty activists in the 1960s. But I could not tell my people’s story without explaining how the academy handled the two main challenges of the sixties: its own massive expansion and the social and political ferment sweeping through the rest of the country.

As America’s public colleges and universities doubled and tripled in size, they sought to provide a low-cost, high-quality college education to all students able to take advantage of it. That mission changed the culture of academe -- not only because of the previously excluded students and teachers surging onto the campus, but also because of the newfound emphasis on research imposed by almost every school.

The conflicts these changes produced were exacerbated by the social and political turmoil of the sixties. From the start colleges and universities were pulled into the struggles for racial equality and against the Vietnam War. In fact, many of those struggles began or intensified on the nation’s campuses. As the student unrest spread from top-tier institutions to lesser-known ones, professors and administrators found themselves blindsided by the totally unprecedented challenges they faced.

Because of the negative publicity the protests attracted, the public’s support for America’s once highly respected institutions declined. Buffeted by the economic crises of the late 1960s and 1970s, increasingly hostile lawmakers ended their previously unlimited generosity to their states’ colleges and universities. The 1960s’ bright promise of near-universal public higher education disappeared. We feel that loss to this day.
Learn more about The Lost Promise at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue