This fall will bring with it the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. Though the movement has been relegated to the pages of history, its issues are just as relevant today as ever. The piece below was written by Michael Rossman, a key organizer of the FSM, on its 10th anniversary, in 1974.
As seen through the national media, the FSM began in October 1964, when three thousand students held hostage a police car that had arrested a civil rights worker on the Berkeley campus, and climaxed three months later when 800 students were arrested in the first campus sit-in, 10,00 more went on strike and shut the campus down, and the faculty voted to ratify the major student demands.
At stake were not only the local Civil Rights movement and the university’s budget, but also fundamental political issues. Are students citizens? Do they enjoy basic political rights while on a public campus, as well as in their off hours— not only the
right to vote, but to organize political action? The narrow issue was free speech. Did we have the right to advocate political causes, hold meetings for them, recruit members, collect funds? The regents said no, the Constitution said yes, we went to jail, the faculty agreed with us, and the regents passed a resolution saying they didn’t contemplate abridging our rights.
But this political issue of students’ rights was only the surface of the FSM and its legacy. There was also the issue of academic freedom. By 1964 many of us had come to look on college not just as a place where one went like an empty can to get filled with the information and habits that could win one a classy job, but as a place where we should learn about the injustices and ugliness of our society, and how to change them. In this sense our political activity wasn’t just an extracurricular frill, but a crucial part of our education. We wanted to use the public university in every possible way to further it. We wanted courses that would lead us to understand what happens behind the smokescreens of power, we wanted to use campus facilities to organize experiments in social change, and soon we wanted to receive credit towards degrees for participating in and evaluating these experiments.
At stake here, in a sharply political example, was perhaps the key education issue of our time. How much right does the student have to determine the content, style, thrust, and purpose of his or her learning? Should he or she have full rights of
academic freedom, as of political freedom?
If the FSM was the harbinger of what may yet amount to an education revolution, it is worth asking why it started at Berkeley. As well as surveys can determine, we were the best students at the best all-around university in the country. Our defection was surprising, but perfectly appropriate. For if the problems with the education in our civilization are not superficial, requiring merely some minor institutional adjustments to correct, but fundamental, as I believe, then in a sense our experience of education at its best was instead education at its worst. The institution’s contradictions, its failures to meet personal and social needs were at their highest refinement in us. We were jolted to awareness of them by the contrasting experience of a different kind of educational community, developing in the civil rights movement and more fully in the FSM itself, without which we who were the most favored could not have begun to recognize our own oppression.
In 1964 the university’s motto was in loco parentis, and it was indeed our parent institution, monitoring the final stages of our preparation for adult citizenship. If, alone and together, we have not fully passed on to anything at all, and in many ways have fallen back, it is because we had embarked on a rite of passage for which no completion yet exists.
For if the university was our surrogate parent, then the other institutions of society, which it resembles so deeply, govern us paternally also. Truly to leave the family, to see ourselves no longer as the dependent extension of their personalities, was to enter an unknown space— to face the task of creating a new adulthood in a changed society, without ritual, tradition, or example to guide us, nor any supporting structure.