The 1960s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1960s Education: Topics in the News



In previous eras, those who emigrated to the United States had readily learned to speak English. Whether their native languages were Yiddish, Polish, or Italian, they yearned to fit into American society. One way to accomplish this was by speaking English.

Beginning in the 1960s, this view radically changed among the new waves of immigrants. Many believed that abandoning their native languages would lead to severing connections with their native cultures. In 1967, an amendment was introduced to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 providing for the establishment and promotion of bilingual education programs. The goals of the legislation included the cultivation of ancestral pride among youngsters and the reinforcement of their native languages.

Bilingual education was a sheer necessity in such locales as Miami, Florida, where waves of Cuban refugees were arriving and entering the school system. Non-Spanish-speaking teachers in Dade County struggled to communicate with their students. Many educators began attending night classes to learn to speak Spanish, while the school system hired former Cuban teachers as classroom assistants and translators.

In the face of this increased emphasis on bilingual education, critics complained that such programs do little more than ghettoize immigrants and prevent them from entering the American mainstream.


During the 1960s, students at all education levels studied newly offered subjects. The National Defense Education Act, whose content had been expanded from its original 1958 version, resulted in an increase in foreign-language classes. By 1966, more than three thousand college undergraduates were enrolled in courses offering intensive instruction in thirty-six languages. Many of those who successfully completed them went on to teach foreign languages in secondary schools.

The emerging civil rights movement and growing conflict over Vietnam led to changes in the study and teaching of American history. Previously, the American past had been portrayed as being completely glorious. Pioneers who "settled" the American West were presented as courageous, forward-thinking individuals who helped build a great nation by stretching their country's borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The fact that Native American tribes were displaced and often unfairly treated by the U.S. government was ignored. At a 1969 conference sponsored by the American Historical Association, Yale University historian C. Vann Woodward (1908–1999) observed, "Was the U.S. record all that righteous, unique, and pure, or is this a national illusion?"

In 1955, Woodward had authored The Strange Career of Jim Crow, in which he charted the history of segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), the era's preeminent civil rights leader, called Woodward's book "the historical bible of the Civil Rights movement." At the same time, historian, social critic, and future Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin (1914–) emphasized that students needed to be exposed to history as experienced by all segments of society. He noted that students should "frankly face the role of violence and oppression in our history." Such sentiments in the late 1950s influenced the development in the 1960s of new fields of historical study such as black history, urban history, and, as the feminist movement grew during the 1970s, women's studies.

The Degeneration of the English Language

In a 1964 article published in Newsweek magazine, writers and educators lamented the demise of standard English. Humorist-cartoonist James Thurber (1894–1961) was quoted on the subject. Before he died, Thurber bemoaned the "spreading malaise of 'you know' as well as do wop choruses, bop talk, slang, intellectualese, government jargon, and sloppy grammar." All, according to Thurber, were "continually eroding the king's English." Added Northwestern University professor Dwight Macdonald, (1906–1982), "When the typical student commits his thoughts to writing, he defiles his own language."

Attendees at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers that year suggested all current English teachers be retrained. The College Board Commission on English proposed a different solution: more classroom writing assignments and an increase in classic literature on student booklists.

Social science and sociology, the study of the interaction that occurs and problems that arise when people live together as social groups, was another new and popular scholastic discipline. Between 1963 and 1965, student enrollment in graduate programs in sociology at the University of Southern California (USC) doubled. "Young people today are very concerned with catastrophic changes that are leaving people bruised and broken," noted the dean of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

Theater arts was another emerging field of study. Before the 1960s, aspiring performers had to go to New York to attend acting school, where they would hope to break into the profession. However, in 1959, UCLA brought a professional acting troupe to its campus to establish a theater. During the 1960s, dozens of universities established drama programs for the purpose of training actors for Broadway and regional theaters. Eventually, universities constructed dazzling new state-of-the-art theaters. The $20 million Krannert Center for Performing Arts, at the University of Illinois, was completed in 1966. Because they were supported by the universities and not dependent for their survival on ticket sales, they did not have to show mainstream productions. Instead, they were able to encourage experimentation and creativity.

Innovations in teaching at the primary and secondary school level were not limited to new subject matter; familiar areas of study were taught in new ways. Linguists, theorists, and scholars developed new methods for teaching English, math, and science. Subjects were taught by engaging the student's imagination and intellectual curiosity, rather than by rote. Teacher-led discussions encouraged students to develop their minds, ask questions about the subject matter, and arrive at their own conclusions. Students were encouraged to explore ideas rather than memorize facts.

Such "learning by discovery" approaches, while heartily endorsed by many educators and students, also met with controversy. Some veteran teachers were displeased, because this new approach required additional preparation and effort; it veered from the traditional manner of teaching, which had as its focus a specific set of facts and ideas that students were expected to memorize and prove mastery of through tests and other objective measures. Some parents, noting that their children were not committing facts to memory as they had done, complained the education system was failing.


In 1965, as the war in Vietnam escalated, nineteen-year-olds were being conscripted into the military and draft deferments for married men were abolished. However, deferments remained in place for all matriculated university students. College became a haven for avoiding Vietnam, and a young male who dropped out of school or was asked to leave because of failing grades more than likely wound up in the military. At the time, an Amherst College professor joked that the school's new grading system consisted of five classifications: A (excellent); B (good); C (fair); D (passing); and V (Vietnam). Explained a colleague at UCLA, "Fear is a driving force in academia these days. I am damned sure students are studying more."

During World War II, young Americans from all classes and educational backgrounds went into battle, side by side. Now, college-age men who otherwise might not continue their education beyond high school readily enrolled in college to avoid Vietnam. The result was that the war was being fought not by a cross-section of Americans, but by the working class and poor who could not afford to enter college. Those from the middle or upper classes had sufficient financial resources to pay tuition fees and buy their way out of (or at least postpone) serving in the military.


In 1960, a military pilot incorrectly set his compass and flew over Canada, rather than California. A major's error in arithmetic resulted in a fuel miscalculation and the landing of a jet fleet at the wrong airfield. Such mistakes were disturbing to the military's top brass. If a lack of education could foul up a simple peacetime exercise, what might happen during wartime? Would battles and lives be lost because of mathematical error or failure to understand instructions?

To combat this problem, the U.S. military appropriated $63 million to tutor its officers. By 1964, an education program was in full force, with hundreds of thousands of GIs returning to classrooms to study everything from basic reading, writing, and arithmetic to subjects at the postgraduate level.

The military's effort to educate its soldiers was not restricted to the upper ranks. The increase in college enrollments outside the military, coupled with the need for more manpower, resulted in the lowering of draft standards for recruits. Now, those with as low as a sixth-grade education qualified for the draft. Nevertheless, each year, one in every three of the 1.5 million men who turned twenty-one failed to meet the military's aptitude requirements. In response, the army initiated Project 100,000 (indicating the number of student-soldiers it hoped to enroll by 1968), a program that offered basic remedial courses leading to high-school equivalency degrees.


During the 1960s, Paul Goodman (1911–1972) earned fame as an outspoken critic of the manner in which Americans were educated. He argued that schools harmed, rather than improved, young people.

In Compulsory MisEducation, his 1964 critique of formal education in the United States, Goodman wrote that Americans "already have too much formal schooling, and the more we get, the less education we will get." He added that "schools play a noneducational role—in the tender grades the schools are a baby-sitting service.… In the junior and senior grades, they are an arm of the police, providing cops and concentration camps paid for in the budget under the heading 'Board of Education.'"

Montessori Schools

In the 1890s, Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was a medical student serving an internship in a psychiatric clinic in Rome. She was horrified by the manner in which the children were treated and began a lifelong study of mentally deficient youngsters. Eventually, her work included investigating the education of all children. Mostly, she worked with the poor, in whom she saw a vast potential that remained mostly untapped. Montessori's research resulted in her pioneering theories involving children and education. "All children are endowed with (the) capacity to 'absorb culture'," she explained. As such, they are able to learn naturally, employing creativity and spontaneity. Her belief was that a teacher's purpose was not to "instruct," but to make available learning opportunities to which each child might instinctively relate. Upon graduating medical school in 1896, Montessori became the first female physician in Italy. Eventually, she abandoned her work in medicine to work full-time as a children's education advocate.

Montessori's methods were not new in the 1960s. However, they attracted renewed interest with the 1964 republication of her 1912 book, The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in 'the Children's Houses'. This rediscovery of Montessori and her theories resulted in the implementation of her methods into early childhood education programs.

Goodman believed that the primary purpose of the education "establishment" was not to arouse intellectual curiosity and teach students how to be independent thinkers. Rather, it was to "provide apprentice training for corporations, government, and the teaching profession itself, and to train the young to adjust to authority." While attending school did teach children how to interact with others, Goodman believed that school systems did little more than temporarily control the behavior of young people through external pressure in a structured setting. In a debate with Harvard University president James B. Conant (1893–1978), Goodman declared that such "regimentation" has "saddled us with an inhumane and uncitizenly society…"

Goodman pioneered the concept of the "open university": an unstructured "free university" where do-it-yourself learning was the rule. Upon publication of his 1966 book, The Open University, over a dozen American campuses established such programs. Huts were built on the campus of San Francisco State University, where various courses were available. Often, they were initiated and taught by students. At Cornell University, for example, Muslim students offered courses on Islamic culture. A professor even enrolled in a course on jazz history taught by one of his students.

Paul Goodman and his theories and criticisms were controversial and not accepted by the education establishment as a whole. However, he was a catalyst to open debate about the function and purpose of structured education opportunities in American society.


The 1960s saw an increase in the federal government's involvement in, and support of, educational programs. In 1961, Congress renewed the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Upon entering office in 1961, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) pushed for more federal aid to education. Controversy arose when Kennedy chose to support federal funding only for public schools; many Catholic politicians believed government monies also should be committed to parochial schools. Other regional office-holders, mostly Republicans and Southern Democrats, were firmly against federal educational funding. The reason: federal bills often included clauses involving school desegregation.

In December 1963, less than one month after Kennedy's assassination, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), signed into law the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963. Johnson, like Kennedy, was dedicated to improving American education and increasing federal participation in education. In 1965, Johnson announced that he foresaw the United States becoming a "Great Society," a nation of plenty. In this "Great Society," all American children would be the beneficiaries of top-flight schooling. That year, U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel (1916–1990) described the federal government's new role in education as that of "a junior partner in a firm in which the major stockholders are the state, and local and private education agencies."

Before Johnson left office in 1969, a number of ambitious federal programs were in place. The Teacher Corps brought young people to urban slums and poor rural areas, where they worked as educators. The Head Start program attacked poverty by establishing educational programs for four- and five-year-old preschoolers. Follow Through served as a supplement

to Head Start. College students were guaranteed student loans; they could borrow up to $1,000 per year, begin repayment nine months after graduation, and have up to a decade to pay off the loan at 3 percent interest. Scholarships were available for many who otherwise could not afford college tuition. Work-study programs allowed undergraduates to combine classes with full-time summer and part-time fall and spring jobs with non-profit organizations. Host groups provided 10 percent of the funding; the federal government contributed the remaining 90 percent. Other projects included increased funds for public television and aid for school and library construction. During Johnson's time in office, annual federal aid to education increased from $1.8 billion to over $12 billion.


At the beginning of the decade, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court decision was six years old. Brown v. Board of Education overruled the "separate but equal" doctrine with regard to schools; segregated public schools were judged to be unconstitutional. Nonetheless, particularly in the American South, many schools remained segregated. Often, local officials simply avoided the issue.

In 1964, the newly passed Civil Rights Act authorized the U.S. Office of Education to withhold federal funds from school systems that had failed to integrate. Plus, the U.S Attorney General was encouraged to legally enforce desegregation. At the beginning of the 1964 and 1965 school year, only 604 of 2,951 school districts in eleven Southern states had begun the desegregation process. One year later, 2,816 systems started the process. This change was a direct result of the threat of losing federal funding.

Still, a number of systems only made token efforts to integrate themselves. For example, some began a "freedom of choice" program, whereby students were allowed to select the schools they would attend. Occasionally, black students chose all-white ones, yet rarely if ever did a white child agree to switch to a predominantly black school. By the end of the decade, additional Supreme Court rulings had stripped Southern school districts of this kind of legal maneuvering. The court's position, once and for all, was that "the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary systems."

Integration was not just a Southern issue. In states from New York to California, many schools were segregated simply because children from predominantly black or white neighborhoods attended schools in their communities. Busing students to different school districts seemed a logical solution. However, this approach proved controversial. In the New York City borough of Manhattan, 2,700 Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) members vowed to contest school busing. One parent protested, "Why do our children have to be inconvenienced just to satisfy the Negroes' whims?"


The tide of social unrest that swept across the United States during the 1960s had a direct bearing on university life. From mid-decade on, a revolution raged on campuses across America. College students were protesting everything from their nation's involvement in the war in Vietnam to what they believed was a lack of quality and relevance in the education they were receiving. Their activism produced changes in college curricula, student regulations, administrative policies, and the manner in which colleges related to their students.

The Morals Revolution

During the first half of the decade, college administrators were empowered to serve as the surrogate parents of undergraduates. In this regard, they had unquestioned authority over a student's personal life. For example, female students on many campuses had to adhere to nightly curfews, and sign in and out when leaving dormitories. Students were prohibited from visiting the dormitory rooms of members of the opposite sex.

These reins began to loosen during the late 1960s. Between 1955 and 1965, the number of college students nationwide increased from 2.5 million to 5.5 million. This rising population made it difficult for administrators to continue limiting student freedom. The sexual revolution also was changing on-campus attitudes. While chastity remained a virtue for many students, others were rethinking their positions on premarital sex.

Increasing pressure from students resulted in the termination of many dormitory regulations. However, not all administrators approved of these changes. Observed Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, "If anyone seriously believes he cannot become well-educated without girls in his room, he should get free of Notre Dame."

In the early 1960s, college campuses were generally conservative in nature. The academic community had close links with government and defense contractors; many school administrators were federal bureaucrats and corporate executives rather than educators. At this time, school enrollments began to bulge as the baby boom generation reached college age. Many students and professional academics began to question the values their school's administrators appeared to represent.

The student protest movement rose from the Civil Rights movement. In the early 1960s, college students who were deeply committed to securing equality for black Americans traveled to the South and participated in voting rights drives. Back on their campuses throughout the country, they became more outspoken about other issues they perceived as unjust. The decade's first documented on-campus protest occurred in 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley, where a small dispute over school regulations exploded into a major confrontation. Berkeley was a major provider of military research. Not coincidentally, at the beginning of the 1964 and 1965 school year, students were informed they no longer could give political speeches or hand out literature involving social issues at the student union. While student civil rights activists viewed the edict as being aimed specifically at them, all student political organizations, whether liberal or conservative, stood to suffer from the ban.

On September 17, 1964, a coalition of campus groups calling itself the United Front petitioned the school administration to rescind the order. The Berkeley decision-makers refused to do so. One of the protest leaders was Mario Savio (1942–1996), a philosophy student who had spent the previous summer in Mississippi helping black sharecroppers to register to vote. Savio believed the edict restricted the constitutional right to free speech. The policy served to unite students and make them active participants in what came to be known as the "free speech movement." In an address in which he attacked university president Clark Kerr (1911–), Savio noted, "An autocracy [dictatorship] runs this university…if President Kerr is the manager, then the faculty are a bunch of employees and we're the raw material. But we don't mean to be made into any product, don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university.… We're human beings." When a Berkeley official asserted that the ban would preserve political neutrality, Savio responded, "The University of California is directly involved in making new and better atom bombs. Whether this is good or bad, don't you think…in the spirit of political neutrality, either they should not be involved or there should be some democratic control over the way they're being involved?" In any case, for the protestors, the issue was about free speech, rather than political neutrality.

The dispute between the university and the demonstrators raged for several weeks. It culminated in December in a sit-in at Sproul Hall involving between eight hundred and one thousand students. (The "sit-in" was a tactic first employed in civil rights protests; it was a preplanned action in which a mass of individuals occupied seats in a segregated bus depot or restaurant, for the purpose of integrating it.) California governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown (1905–1996) responded to the student protest by ordering six hundred police to clear the hall. In the end, 773 students were taken into custody, in what then was the largest mass-arrest in state history. In response, ten thousand students went on strike. They refused to attend classes and picketed the university's gates. Eventually, the school's faculty senate passed a resolution calling for the lifting of the ban. The Berkeley chancellor was relieved of his duties, and was replaced by an academic. The protesters' success at Berkeley encouraged similar demonstrations at other universities across the country. A year later, in 1965, movie actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan (1911–), a conservative, was elected governor of California. He mustered enough votes to win by campaigning against the "sit-ins, teach-ins, and walk-outs" at Berkeley, and by promising to institute a "throw-out" within the university.

By 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) began escalating the war in Vietnam, college students nationwide had a cause they could rally behind. As the years passed, increasing numbers of Americans of all ages and from all segments of society came to believe that military involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. However, at the outset, those who were vocally antiwar primarily were college students.

Throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s, the protest movement flourished on campuses. At Harvard in 1966, members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a radical group, scoffed at U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (1916–) and refused to allow his car to leave campus. Students at the University of Chicago staged a sit-in to protest on-campus examinations being conducted by the Selective Service System, the organization empowered to draft young men into the military. In 1967, students at the University of Wisconsin destroyed school property while protesting on-campus recruitment by Dow Chemical, a major defense contractor. The following year, students at Columbia University occupied several campus building for eight days. They were protesting Vietnam war-related research at the university, the school's ownership of slum buildings in the nearby Harlem community, and the school's attempt to construct a gymnasium on the site of a Harlem park.

The Strawberry Statement

In 1968, nineteen-year-old Columbia University student protester James Simon Kunen (1948–) became a spokesperson for his generation when published The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, in which he offered his thoughts on the lifestyles and beliefs of contemporary youth.

"People want to know who we are," Kunen observed, "and some think they know who we are—a bunch of snot-nosed brats. It's difficult to say really who we are. We don't have snot on our noses. What we do have is hopes and fears."

Back in the late 1960s, long hair was not merely a hairstyle; it was often a symbol of one's political beliefs. Conservative Americans generally held a negative opinion of young men with long hair. In acknowledgment of that sentiment, Kunen noted, "as for bad vibrations emanating from my [hair] follicles, I say great. I want the cops to sneer and the old ladies swear and the businessmen worry. I want everyone to see me and say, 'There goes an enemy of the state,' because that's where I'm at, as we say in the Revolution biz."

On various occasions hundreds of thousands of students from across the nation came to Washington, D.C. to protest their country's Vietnam policies. Meanwhile, black students were demanding concessions from universities, including increases in black administrators and professors and black studies courses.

Clashes between students and authorities sometimes turned violent and deadly. In May 1970, months of antiwar protest on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio ended with the Ohio National Guard shooting into a crowd of demonstrators. Four students were killed, and nine others were wounded.

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The 1960s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1960s Education: Topics in the News