This conference begins a multi-year research platform of investigation into a series of ideas that Black people and people of color generally have planted in the 20th century, ideas that have germinated, sprouted, and bloomed anew repeatedly throughout the world. Many of these ideas came to fruition in 1968, although seeded earlier in global culture, and they continue to flower today.
The key idea we investigate this year is the student as a revolutionary force in education. In 1968, to be a student meant to be critical of existing structures, to see oneself as part of a larger community movement, to believe that activism was effective as a way of changing education and society, and to use aesthetics as a politics to imagine a fundamental change in everyday life.
Poised as we are in 2008 at the end of the most aggressive neoliberalization of education since the 1980s—when the dominant trend has been to squash critical thinking, to diminish questioning in the classroom, to install rote memorization rather than comprehension as a learning technique, and to repress urges to connect education to broader problems facing the student’s community—it is good to look back to the 1960s for inspiration to map the new education of the 21st century.
What does global mean?
It means that in 1968, students and their allies imagined and put into practice a politics that was not bounded by geographical lines. Activists moved across state, national, and mental borders, across ethnic and identity lines, and across disciplinary and institutional barriers to form communities of knowledge and interrogate the meaning and structure of daily life.
Thus, we see Black Panthers in Mexico City on the eve of the Olympics trying to forge an alliance with the local student movement—a movement that was effectively challenging the legitimacy of a Revolutionary government that was no longer revolutionary.
We find young Black and Chicana/o students fighting to change the nature of education at UC Los Angeles and UC Santa Barbara by working together to bring criticality and community into these institutions and make them global and less imperialist in their own locales.
We see Situationist-inspired students transforming the Paris May ’68 rebellion into a post-medium exploration of communication, fusing print and graphics in new poster forms that become vehicles for pithy critiques of how power is exercised through the media and the spectacle driven consumer society that we have inherited and further abused today.
And students everywhere from Mexico City to Paris to Santa Barbara rebelled against the bureaucratic empire that educational institutions had become, rebelled against the routinization and indoctrinations of their educations, rebelled against the anti-democratic spirit of the societies into which they were being initiated, and asked a fundamental question: what are we being educated for?
The upsurge of Black democratic protest and activism in 1968 is related to social and political upheavals set in motion by World War II, which resulted in (a.) the Civil Rights Movement of African Americans demanding democracy in America for service in the war, (b.) the decolonization and anti-colonial non-violent and violent movements for independence in Africa and Asia directly following World War II, and (c.) anti-fascist education in Europe designed to avoid another WWII.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States innovated a series of philosophies and practices for challenging the hegemonic control exercised by political and cultural oligarchies in the Western World. The successful Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955-56 constituted a seismic shift in the relations of the dominated and the dominating not just in America, but also on a global platform. With the success of that movement, undertaken largely by middle and working class blacks, albeit with institutional support from Black Churches and the NAACP, it became possible for oppressed nationalities and minorities throughout the world to imagine that their lives could be measurably changed by activism “from the bottom up.” In essence, 1956 prefigured 1968.
While the U.S. Supreme Court 1954 decision outlawing segregation in education set the stage for this advance, the change in race relations would not have occurred without the willingness of young people to take action. The Sit-ins of 1960 that desegregated lunch counters in North Carolina gave further evidence that youth, often students, could force the social institutions of education, transportation, and the retail economies to yield to a new, more inclusive notion of the rights of the citizen. These movements were aided by violent anti-colonial struggles in Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, Nigeria, South Africa, and Eastern Europe that destabilized the legitimacy of white supremacy, European imperialism, Soviet Imperialism, and American domestic colonialism. Two theatres of dramatic political contestation were France, which had lost both the Vietnamese and Algerian Wars, and the United States, which, with the surprise of the TET offensive, and the rise of Black militancy, saw their so-called invulnerability challenged for the first time. Suddenly, Americans were educated in a new way of thinking—taking seriously the power and efficacy of the postcolonial subject. In particular, the success of Vietnamese youth in removing Americans from the landmass of Vietnam, perhaps most dramatically catalyzed by the TET Offensive of 1968, signaled that the old style imperialism and colonialism was outmoded.
But in the United States, in Mexico, and in France, the problem of the emergence and persistence of new style colonialism—an internal colonialism of the mind—became even more vigilant with the passage of the old. Even with the support of the American youth who formed the New Left and actively contributed to the departure of American military forces from Vietnam, the fundamental ideals of nationalism, Cold War-ism, and internal fascism remained operative, and even stimulated by the challenge from the Left. In that sense, the revisiting of these times in terms of today must do several things:
- Dispel the notion that the forces for change operative in 1968 ended with the calendar year.
- Confront and examine the question seldom raised at the time: given that any substantive change would destabilize those who were benefiting from the status quo, how did those forces react to contain and thwart the expansion of progressive change in the years following 1968?
- Uncover whether the progressive, collaborative, and ultimately utopian thinking of 1968 is still operative, if often underground, today.
- Suggest that a new understanding of 1968 is necessary in light of the Civil Rights Movement; that is, that both the Civil Rights Movement and the changes brought about by 1968 were not only limited to the desire for inclusion of Black, Mexican, or Parisian youth within a system, but also the desire if not the demand to open up that system to new possibilities for education and association.
In particular, a fresh arena of investigation into the topic of number three is in the sphere of cultural practice. For example, as Josh Kun has noted in Audiotopia, one outcome of the brutal massacre of students and workers in Tlatelolco has been the subversive persistence of Mexican rock bands that see “Tlatelolco ‘68” as a rallying cry for the creation of a post-nationalism, transnational cultural sphere expressed in rock en espanol1. In the aftermath of 1968, there emerged a completely new music and art politics in the United States, later labeled “Hip Hop” that advanced many of the ideas of a dramatic Black Diasporic Renaissance that continues to this day. And as Kristin Ross has argued in May ’68 and Its Afterlives, to recapture the memory of a “mass political event like May” we must push ourselves to transcend the habit of reducing “collective revolt” to “the existential anguish of individual destiny” and overcome our current moment’s “reluctance to consider the very notion of politics or collective political agency in the present.”2 To that, we must begin by rejecting not only what Ross calls “the police conception of history,” but also what we call the trap of identity politics, the notion that the particular histories of these struggles are unconnected to one another by broader social streams of power and contestation.
What does all this have to do with education?
The answer is that in 1968, the terrain of contestation in the United States, Mexico, and France shifted from buses, department stores, voting rights, unions, ministries, etc. to the institutions of education, mainly higher education, as students around the world realized that confronting and dismantling the internal colonialism of the mind in their own countries was key to liberation from the forces that exercised hegemonic control over everyday life in these three countries.
Universities became a focal point of contestation for at least two reasons. Colleges seldom experienced the direct repression of the police, being allowed a degree of relative freedom for students to think and contest the official line of the states in which they were educated. At the same time, French, Mexican, and US universities were precisely the places where the elites who will run the government and the post-industrial economy were trained. In this crucible of relative intellectual freedom, students reacted in the late 1960s to the contradictions of life in the West—the official ideology of freedom of speech, democracy, and self-determination for all nations (the latter spelled out in the Atlantic Charter) and the reality of brutal control of public speech, suppression of democracy, and the continuation of imperialist wars against nationalist movements (most dramatically showcased in the Vietnam War). Added to that was the beginning of heavy handed use of the police to control democratic expression in the universities in France in May, in Mexico in the summer of 1968, and in the United States throughout the year. Students resolved to use the one means of power they had at their disposal—the power of disruption—to bring a halt, if ever so briefly, to normality in these arenas of culture.
In short, students became self-conscious in 1968.
Student movements, fitful, misguided, under-theorized as they were, began a process of liberation from the intellectual McCarthyism of Cold War pedagogies that kept students from imagining themselves as legitimate sources of a new democratic politics for the 20th century.
Student movements of 1968 are distinguished by their demands for substantial changes in the society at large. Instead of wanting better grades, students wanted a better way of life, often for those unable to enter the very universities they disrupted. As students moved into the vanguard of contesting the way “things are” in their societies, they aligned themselves with other social movements for improvement of the quality of life for people living in ghettoes, for workers enduring harsh conditions of labor, and for disenfranchised peoples on the margins of society.
Students saw themselves as the agents of change within the university, contesting disciplinary knowledge and the disciplining structures of education and in the process creating new disciplines and new approaches to studying the soul of their nations.
But we should not romanticize this phase of student driven change. This rebellion against the structures of straitjacket education met with very resistant, resourceful, and violent countermeasures that often contained the interventions when they did not destroy them altogether. In Mexico City, after waffling early in its response to the student uprising, the government brutally repressed students, especially when they allied with workers in a demonstration for change on the eve of the 1968 Olympics. In Paris, workers abandoned students after almost a month long general strike, effectively ending the possibility of bringing down the French government; afterwards, students were trivialized as engaged in demands for sex, “individual freedom,” and personal liberation rather than demanding a wholesale change in the nature of everyday life for everyone. And in the United States, broad based demands for Black Power and ethnic self-determination were reduced to demands for Black Studies Programs, Chicana/o Studies Programs, and Asian American Studies Programs that, even when successful at establishing a presence in historically-White institutions of higher education, were often isolated into Bantustans of knowledge away from the main curricula of university education.
Since 1968, 40 years of student driven education and the reactions to it have brought us to this place, in 2008, when we have seen, in the Obama campaign, a new generation of students who aspire to a new democratic efficacy for students. After charting what happened in the incredibly creative year of 1968, we come today to ask this new generation: given the inspiration of that earlier model, where do we/you go from here?
1Josh Kun, Audiotopia, p. 191.
2Kristin Ross, May '68 and Its Afterlives, pp. 3-4.
1968 Conference Poster
Click for larger view
1968 Olympics, Mexico:
UCSB, North Hall Take-Over
Paris, May 1968:
Tlatelolco Massacre, Mexico