Maybe We Shouldn’t Take College Protests at Face Value

A demonstrator confronts university police on the University of Chicago campus on May 7, 2024. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

News organizations have done well in reporting the who, what, when, and where of more than 400 campus protests regarding the Israel-Hamas war. But some—ranging from the Dallas Morning News and the Des Moines Register to SiouxlandProud and OzarksFirst—have ventured into rugged terrain by running headlines asking, “Why are college students protesting?”

The typical story takes at face value the claims of those chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Some conservative organs have made fun of the protests by showing that many with fists in the air should have put them in their mouths to avoid sounding like know-nothings. But if we take the protesters seriously, ask in-depth questions, and practice investigative journalism rather than stenography, will we find that many are protesting their own lives or their upbringing more than they are protesting world events?

Part of my suspicion arises from my own past. I was one of 48 students in November 1969 who for four and a half hours occupied a Yale University personnel office. This tactic was part of a larger campaign by the Yale Worker Student Alliance, a faction of Students for a Democratic Society, to demand improvements in wages and working conditions for Yale employees. The building occupation at Yale ended with 47 of the 48 students briefly suspended. I was No. 48 and at that time also on the political left, but since I wrote about the protest for the Yale Daily News I had reportorial privilege. 

In May 1971, just before graduation, 20 other students and I sat in front of the administration building. We were on a hunger strike again in support of striking Yale employees. Since we had plenty of time to talk, I realized that few of us knew much about the employees themselves, but we knew (or thought we knew) about our parents’ lives, which we disliked. The enemy, in other words, was not Yale’s business practice: It was “bourgeois family life,” or fathers we thought of as either ineffective or overbearing, and mothers we saw as shrewish. Lots of our apparently idealistic rhetoric arose not from external realities but from our own internal psychological tensions. 

Are today’s demonstrators similar? Their outrage is certainly selective. I was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin during one recent demonstration replete with “Viva, viva, Palestina!” chants. I was there to hear a lecture on the Chinese government, known for killing innocent civilians in Tiananmen Square and in the Xinjiang Uyghur region of northwest China, but only a couple of undergraduates showed up to hear about those injustices.

It would be easy to join some on the right who ridicule lemming-like students attracted to the cause du jour, but I wonder whether an analysis of the 1960s protests by social psychologist Kenneth Keniston is applicable to the alienation of 2024.

Keniston, who taught at Yale during the 1960s and 1970s and died four years ago, published from 1965 to 1978 books that could be summarized by one of his subtitles: The American Family Under Pressure. What I gathered in talking with my fellow protesters Keniston found to be a general generational disposition: Students spoke of fathers with a “tone of disappointment, the implication of ‘selling out.’” Keniston said  students had “a certain sympathy for the abandoned dreams of their fathers, and perhaps for their image of the youthful fathers themselves, but toward the fathers as they are now, they feel (or communicate) a lack of basic respect.”

That was certainly my attitude. Keniston also nailed the attitudes that my fellow students and I had toward mothers who, in our view, were often “difficult and neurotic, over-possessive and dominating.” When many students (including me) arrived on campus, we were ready to dump our parental authority figures and find new ones. In my case, there were three.

William Sloane Coffin—who was the most famous college pastor at the time and preaching from the imposing Battell Chapel with its stony exterior, solid oak pews, and stained-glass windows—called God “the eternal disseminator of freedom” who “wants to help us grow up, to stretch our minds and hearts until they are as wide as God’s universe.” The celebrity chaplain said a crippled man miraculously healed by Jesus wasn’t really crippled but “was quite literally scared sick. He failed to dare to be himself.” The woman who bled for 12 years was actually a metaphor: “America is bleeding … Everybody has had their integrity violated, so this internal bleeding has gone on.” Coffin’s implicit message: You’re violated, bleeding, and scared. Fight back not by getting right with God but by getting on the wrong side of Amerikkka!

The illustrious historian John Morton Blum lectured in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, home of $100,000 Tiffany windows depicting poets of ancient Greece and solemn angels thirsting for knowledge. He hurled elegantly stated invective against plutocrats of the past and loved on progressives and the Great Society. A 2017 memoir by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, who attended Yale just before me, describes how “in Professor John Morton Blum’s classroom, the robber baron poses for a portrait with his greatcoat; the poor shiver in their tenements …Tycoons are men of scurvy habit; their smokestacks foul the air; their greed chokes small competitors; their factories and mills wear down young girls before their time.” 

Then there was Yale Law professor Charlie Reich. His The Greening of America, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 1970, began, “America is dealing death, not only to people in other lands, but to its own people. So say the most thoughtful and passionate of our youth, from California to Connecticut.” Flattered, about 450 of us relished Reich’s lectures in the block-long Yale Law School building, modeled on the medieval English Inns of Court and embellished with carved wood, including a bulldog (Yale’s mascot) dressed as a lawyer. Reich scorned those he called “Consciousness I” (often small-business owners) and “Consciousness II” assembly line workers, whose days are “mindless, exhausting, boring, servile, and hateful.” He said no thoughtful person “could possibly be happy or contented in a factory or white-collar job.” 

Reporters who go beyond the who, what, when, and where by offering a “why” should see whether some who now shout “divestment” are divesting their parents and collecting kudos from professors. Keniston saw alienation starting in families, then going broader. Students in the 1960s spoke of “their growing distance from each other, from their social order, from their work and play, and from the values and heroes which in a perhaps romanticized past seem to have given order, meaning, and coherence to their lives.”

Keniston generalized about the 1960s: “The drift of our time is away from connection, relation, communion, and dialogue.” He anticipated what a sociologist of the next generation, Robert Putnam, summarized in the title of his 2000 bestseller, Bowling Alone, and what the British government in 2018 acknowledged in appointing a minister for loneliness. Keniston concluded that “the prevailing images of our culture are images of disintegration, decay, and despair. Our highest art involves the fragmentation and distortion of traditional realities.” 

Is that not the case now as well? To go deeper into “why,” reporters should ask about parents and pied-piper professors. It seems to me that universities were once places where students learned to connect the dots, yet today they focus on “disintegration, decay, and despair.” But that’s my guess based on personal experience and my paralleling of the 2020s and the 1960s. I’m fine with being proved wrong: Sociologists and psychologists, please go at it.

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