Commentary Magazine


Lessons from Columbia

In “Days of Rage Recalled,” Stefan Kanfer reviews Mark Rudd’s “Undergound” — an autobiography by the leader of the 1968 takeover of the buildings at Columbia University, which convulsed the campus and served as the prelude to a decade of bombings, armed robbery and incitement to murder, all in pursuit of a better Amerika.  Kanfer calls the book a series of rationales for Rudd’s toxic behavior, followed by “one of the most unconvincing mea culpas since Bernie Madoff turned himself in.”

In 1977, Mr. Rudd finally surfaced in a well-hyped, thoroughly lawyered surrender to federal authorities. He gloats that at his arraignment he was “treated more or less as a V.I.P. rather than a bail jumper and an accused felon revolutionary.” Another delight: Most of the charges against him were dropped, and he got off with two years’ probation and a $2,000 fine.

Guilty as hell, free as a bird. 

The March/April issue of Columbia College Today features an interview with Dean Austin Quigley, retiring after completing the second longest tenure in the College’s 255-year history.  There is a reference to 1968 in his answer to the question of the derivation of the phrase “intergenerational community,” which is how he describes the College and its family.  It is a remarkable answer that serves as a better autobiographical lesson than Rudd’s book:

Everybody is influenced to some extent by the circumstances in which they grew up. I grew up in England after the Second World War, after a period of destruction on a global scale. It’s hard for people in the United States to grasp how long the effects of that war lingered in England. The bombed and derelict buildings stayed that way for many, many years. Rationing of food was still typical into the early and mid-1950s. Normal life certainly didn’t resume when peace came in 1945. I vividly recall to this day the first time I went to a candy store (sometime in the 1950s) when I could finally buy anything I wanted without producing the dreaded coupons that rationed out some tiny portion for so many years.

Growing up in that post-war environment in one of the many devastated European countries leaves a lasting mark on you. And in England, it wasn’t just that our industrial base was bombed or obsolete but that what was lost with it was an international role and standing that would never be recovered. After two world wars involving incalculable sacrifice, the post-war world was one of shortage and struggle, and the future looked dim.

Many families I knew, including my own, had missing members buried in distant graves somewhere at home or abroad. Lots of survivors had broken bodies and no jobs. Two generations of women who might have chosen to marry found themselves single after the slaughter of the two world wars, with no opportunity to have partners and families of their own. The physical damage, the bomb sites and the derelict factories also signaled the end of an earlier way of life, and large pockets of past grandeur remained to remind us of what had been, along with the glorious English countryside. Magnificent public buildings and parks, and marvelous museums, theaters and galleries preserved the great residue of English culture, for better or worse.

This strange mixture of decaying grandeur and beauty on one hand and derelict bomb sites and rubble on the other exemplified a world in which past, present and future were unclearly aligned and loss was intricately interwoven with gain. The long lingering wartime rhetoric registered the continuing clash between historical aspiration and current reality. For many a family, the grim recognition was that your country could ask of you the last full measure of your devotion, and deliver, in return, nothing very substantial.

What you come out of such a childhood with is a very real sense of the fragility of things, of how even the most advanced of societies can suddenly be at risk and at any moment, and that what has taken generations to build can be destroyed in a relatively short time. If centuries of investment of effort, lives, talents and wealth can be wiped away so suddenly, if so much that seems reliable is always at risk, your understanding of intergenerational responsibilities and of the life of institutions is inevitably informed by that.

Leaving to one side, for example, the arguments about what should and should not have happened in the demanding Columbia circumstances of 1968, you look at events like those of that time and realize how vulnerable universities are, how important it is both to preserve and to renew the great cultural institutions in which lots of the values and many of the resources of our community are embedded. . . .

It is in that context that I feel acutely this sense of generational responsibility and the imperative of reiterating its importance. We have to help students here now to recognize their responsibility to each other and to the students who will come after them. Our Core Curriculum . . . helps them recognize that much of what they are lucky enough to take for granted has been earned by their predecessors’ efforts, that many things that are valuable are constantly at risk and can easily disappear, and that they’ve got to work hard to pass along the best of what we have to their successors. . . . [W]e all must be very alert to things that can damage it irreparably, or destroy it entirely. Losses on such a scale have happened before and can happen again.

. . . We are all links in a chain that goes back to 1754 and we, in our time, must strive to be among the strongest links and deal well with the challenges of our era as others have dealt with the challenges of theirs.

Quigley was born in England in 1942; Rudd in America in 1947 – different worlds, different times, different lives.

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