To the Editor:
Professor Walter Laqueur [“Reflections on Youth Movements,” June] does well to remind us that there is nothing essentially new about either student movements of protest or student violence, and that there is bound to be an inherent ambiguity in any revolt based upon generational considerations. His contribution is the more welcome in that history is one of the intellectual disciplines that many of the student protesters find most repugnant, so that some of their intellectual and moral confusion arises precisely from their unwillingness to situate themselves and their views in historical perspective. On the other hand, the understanding that we gain from a knowledge of historical parallels should not lead us to overlook what is new in the current situation, nor to a suspension of judgment. Never was it less true that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.
In many countries, Czechoslovakia for instance, student protest is playing its classical role in a situation where political liberties do not exist and where the majority is subject to oppression. But in Western Europe and North America this is not the case. On the contrary, the objective results of such agitation can only lead to a polarization of politics, leading either to the further expansion of Soviet Communist domination or (more likely in North America) to a fascist mirror image of the same thing. Some are consciously working for this end; others are being manipulated into doing so.
But even this is not new. What is new is not student revolt but a willingness to go along with some of its demands which represents a new and damaging trahison des clercs. The university leaders who accept demands for lowering entry qualifications, for so-called “black studies,” for student participation in academic government, are betraying their vocation or revealing that they have not understood that modern Western civilization assumes that university teaching is a vocation. They have no more right to give in to demands which would lower the standards of the institutions they serve than a doctor would be justified in giving a patient a deadly drug because the patient clamored for it.
It is easy enough to analyze what has gone wrong with some of the young, not I think anywhere a majority. It is harder to trace by what devious routes, through what amalgam of vanity, cowardice, and a desire for popularity, the values of academe have been betrayed by so many who should be their guardians.
What Professor Laqueur’s historical analogies do not make explicit is the fact that while there have been betrayals of the university ideal of free inquiry and disciplined teaching and research—and the Nazi experience is only the most notorious—there still has been for a long time in the West a certain consensus about what the proper relationships are between teacher and student and among teachers. Academics might hold the most advanced political views; this has not prevented them from insisting that objective truth was an ideal to aim at, and that good students and bad students could be distinguished by objective academic tests, as could useful and productive thought from mere twaddle. For a historian of ideas, the retreat from such beliefs in favor of jumping on whatever bandwagon of ideology or life-style happens to be fashionable at the moment is more interesting than the youth revolt itself. One must hope that Professor Laqueur will one day take up this theme too.
All Souls College