Ellen Schrecker on the Parallels between Today's Attacks on Universities and the 1960s?Historians in the News
tags: higher education, McCarthyism, academic freedom, colleges and universities
Marybeth Gasman is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education and a Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, and has written or edited 29 books, including Making Black Scientists.
Ellen Schrecker has been writing about American higher education for decades and is an expert on McCarthyism. She is the author of important books such as No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities as well as Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Her newest book is The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s (University of Chicago Press, 2021). In the book, Schrecker explores how the turmoil of the 1960s — including protests over the Vietnam War and racial inequality — manifested on college campuses, led to internal power struggles, and most importantly, resulted in the demonization of higher education by the political right.
Although it may seem to readers that Schrecker’s book is perfectly timed for the decade we are living in, she began writing the book years ago, before the unrest, political upheaval, and threats to free speech on campuses that have happened recently. She started The Lost Promise in 2010 when her late husband had grown ill. Schrecker was looking for her “next big project,” and she says, “this project chose me.” She conducted countless oral histories for the book, with people across the political and activism spectrum, to get a deeper understanding of what was really happening at colleges and universities during the 1960s. She also read a breathtaking number of letters, memoirs, and other documents to thoroughly immerse herself in the era.
As Schrecker stated, she approached the topic as someone who “wasn’t really a participant” in the movements of the 1960s. She was more of a “observer” in the university, noting, “I was a faculty wife and a Ph.D. student.” She finished her degree in 1974. Schrecker is now considered the most prominent historian of the political history of higher education. According to Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian at UCLA, in The Last Promise, Schrecker “debunks the popular image of the 1960s university as one of unremitting student rebellion, wild-eyed tenured radicals, and cowering administrators.” Instead, she presents a much more complicated story — one in which constituents of colleges and universities regularly participated in deep struggles over war, corporate power and greed, democracy, race, and sex. Although college and university faculty are often accused of being almost entirely on the left, Schrecker shows the nuance and deep diversity of thought and action. She demonstrates how regardless of a professor’s political leanings — during the 1960s — they were attacked from all corners.
From Kelley’s vantage point, and Schrecker’s as well, those portrayed in her book are fighting over the very purpose of the university. Issues that are still contested, and still vitally important today — such as what can be taught, academic freedom, free speech, access, and the high cost of higher education — were central to conversations during the 1960s as well.