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New Wine in New Skins — Surviving the 1960s
By Ed Weeden
“No one pours new wine into old wine skins, because the skins will burst, the wine spilled, and the skins ruined. Instead, they put new wine into fresh skins, and both are saved.. " (Christian Scriptures. Matthew, 9:17)

For many people, the 1960’s were a golden age of student activism, flower power and rock and roll. What was it really like to grow up in those heady days, and how different is it from the life of today’s students? In this evocative article, Ed Weeden looks back at his own student days in America.

Posted 20-Feb-2014

University Life and the Real World
Leading Three Lives
Students
Activists
American Youth
Looking Back - and Ahead!
The Lasting Legacy
Many people say that if you can remember the 1960's, you weren't really there. I say that if you can't remember the 1960's you weren't really there. This decade has had a telling cultural, social, economic and political influence on all who lived through it and on all who have come since.
Those of us who lived through University life in 1960s America were profoundly affected by the experience. We came to University, in my case the University of California at Los Angeles, as 'new skins', ready to be filled with 'new wine' to supposedly make us ready to lead adult lives. Little did we suspect the heady potency of that wine. Our experience as 'children of the 50's' left us totally unprepared for the issues and influences of a decade of change and revolution.
On the one hand, we had a rather straight-laced concept of university life. We thought of it as a place to grow up, get our degrees and embark on careers. These 'safe' and 'comfortable' goals had been discussed with us by our fathers and mothers, who had lived through the wild fling that was the 1920's, the terrible hangover of the 1930's, the brush with war and death in the 1940's, and the trading cold for hot war in the 1950's. The most common wish for parents of that generation was for us 'not to have to go through what they did' in their lives. We were told to learn, sacrifice, work hard and get an education. These were the keys to earning success in life.
On the other hand, we also viewed university life as our first opportunity to do something truly independent of home and family. For the first time we would be considered adults, and the vast majority of us were eager (actually eager-and-a-half) to participate fully in living. Most of us were aware of the economic, social and cultural trends beginning to have an effect on American life. Now, upon entry to university, was our chance to 'have a go'.
In fact, these waves of change started well before the 1960's dawned. They accelerated between 1965 and 1972, and then seemed to fling off wildly into the obscurity of the 'lost decade' of the late 1970's. So we can't call what happened simply a phenomenon of the 1960's. This was a sweeping cultural movement, or rather counter-cultural movement, that found its focus in the disparity between the ideals and realities of American life.
University Life and the Real World

University Life and the Real World
The trouble with life at any University is that you do indeed learn about life as it should be, and then compare it with what you see in the streets after classes. When the two do not match up, or even show signs of converging, then there is an uncomfortable tension which needs resolution to make sense.
Whether called injustice, inequity, discrimination, war, poverty, the glass ceiling, lack of opportunity, or one of a hundred other names, this state of shortfall and tension demanded a response. These spanned the cultural spectrum from revolution through reform - to isolation and pure reaction. What was common to each was that some sort of response was demanded, and that the response was a true and genuine reflection of the individual to his or her life situation.
Contrary to popular opinion, and the conduct of people before and since, there were no bystanders during the 'era of the 1960's'. Perhaps more importantly, there were no masks, hiding people's real feelings. People living through that time really believed in what they said and did - whether they were members of Students for a Democratic Society struggling to end prejudice and war, or members of the John Birch Society hunting down communists under every rock, everyone spoke their minds, and everyone participated. The entire cultural revolution of the 1960's' can be summed up as an effort to resolve the disparity between what we learned about the way society should be, with what it actually was in fact, either by progressive or regressive means.

 

Leading Three Lives

Each of us had three roles to play: as students, as participants in the times, and as American youth. Each role would have an influence on the other, and the proportion of our energies devoted to each role depended upon the circumstances of the moment.

Students

Students of the 60’s and 70’s confronted many movements and conflicting ideologies, as demonstrated in this classroom scene

To our parents, we were still students, who were expected to 'tow the line' and be awarded with careers after graduating.

Every morning about this time she get me out of my bed a-crying get a job. After breakfast, everyday, she throws the want ads right my way And never fails to say, Get a job! (Silhouettes, Get a Job, 1957)

Most of us who were at University worked extremely hard to make our grades. There were powerful incentives. Those who did not were relegated permanently to lower paying employment in society. More importantly, they also received a 'draft' classification which resulted in their being much more likely to be inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces. Since most of us did not want to exchange a mortarboard for a soldier's helmet and a thoroughly regulated way of life alien to our very souls, we studied hard.
In the mid 1960's our professors were largely conservative in their approach to academic life and society in general, and demanded solid performance. We worked without the benefit of technology, with only typewriters and carbon paper for copies (no white boards, overhead projectors, video players, computers, calculators, tape recorders, online databases, internet, or other such devices). We all struggled, and most of us succeeded, because we were driven by the fear of the consequences of not succeeding. We had also been raised during the 1950's and were accustomed to self-discipline, hard work and high expectations, all of which were instilled in us by our parents.
Most of us lived off campus, in order to experience life more fully. But there were expenses to pay, and we had to do what we could to meet them. Let's take a brief look, using the 1965 exchange rate of 36 pence to the dollar. University fees amounted to $125 per quarter (for all classes) in 1965 (£45). Books were a major expense, often exceeding the fees. Transport was essential. I had a new Volkswagen beetle on which I was paying $66 per month (£24). The furnished, two-bedroom apartment I shared with a fellow History major close to the beach cost us $130 per month (£47). Naturally our parents helped us, but only with school fees and part of the cost of books. The rest was up to us, and we, like most students of that era, worked part time. I earned $1.60(57p) per hour as a till person in a grocery store, and thought it was good money.

 

Activists

Anti-War protest at the Pentagon, October 1967

But academics was not the only thing we studied at university. We studied life as well, through living it. What we saw made us feel both fortunate and ashamed. We felt fortunate that we had been given so much opportunity by our parents, our education and our places in society. But we also felt sad, almost ashamed, that this had been bought at the cost of excluding others. This combination of emotions was the awakening of a social conscience in many thousands of university students all over the America, and it had both explosive and enduring results.
We felt that we had an obligation to act, as independent individuals - albeit students - to do something to help make America and the world a better place. It wasn't that we felt 'empowered'. We didn't know we were not empowered! Perhaps that was youthful arrogance, but many who feel the same way about things do in fact have power - the power of conviction and numbers. So as a consequence we started talking and acting publicly to oppose these disparities.
This of course started a series of exchanges between those of us who felt as we did, and those who did not. These exchanges were not just dialogues, which implies only two points of view. There were many points of view on both sides of the discussions, almost as many as there were individuals involved. It was also not just a matter of ‘us versus them'. There were authorities and members of the older generation who genuinely sided with us in our desires to improve our nation and the world. And there were others our own age and even younger who were adamantly opposed to these efforts.

This movement for progressive change and the opposition to it started with individuals finding common ground, and then coalescing to form active groups. Rosa Parks was an individual. But her integrity of action gave birth to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Mario Savio was in individual. But his calm and strong refusal to permit the abridgement of human rights and freedom on campuses across the nation led to Students for a Democratic Society, with all its social and anti­war implications. William F. Buckley was an individual. But his experiences at Yale University were instrumental in his helping found both the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and the conservative journal National Review. Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago, was an individual. But his decision to use physical violence against the war protesters during the summer of 1968 helped to doom the Democratic Convention he was trying to assist, and ensure the election of Richard Nixon, with all its consequences.

For most of us, the entry into activism happened on a friend-to-friend basis. We talked among ourselves and knew how the other person felt. We were invited to a meeting. We went, and if we liked what we heard, we participated. We were free to participate, or free not to participate, in any proportion we liked:

Born free, and life is worth living
But only worth living, because you're born free
(Roger Williams, Born Free, 1966)

We participated in loosely organised group activities on behalf of everyone - starting with efforts to free universities from the control of vested economic and military interests. We moved naturally, virtually seamlessly, from there to working with people we discovered were oppressed by a seemingly democratic society - such as African Americans, Hispanics, poor whites and women.
Since I came from a mixed Hispanic and White working class neighbourhood south of Los Angeles, I was particularly active in efforts to help the Hispanics form a farm union during this period. 1 personally participated in various forms of protest, petitioning stores to boycott non-union farm products, and working with other Unions to support this effort. As this struggle got increasingly violent, I offered to shelter threatened farm workers and union organisers in my own apartment. On several occasions I experienced vigorous police 'visits' looking for union organisers, and on one occasion we had to suddenly transport individuals from California to Texas to keep them from being physically harmed by opponents of the union.

I got a hammer, and I got a bell, I got a song to sing all over this land,
It's the hammer of justice, It's the bell of freedom,
It's the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land
(Peter, Paul, and Mary, If I had a Hammer, 1962)

As the war in Vietnam heated up during the period 1963-1973, my friends and I participated in various Vietnam Anti-War and Moratorium activities, including massive protest marches in the San Francisco Bay Area and on the UCLA campus. During that time we organised teach-ins which educated the students, faculty and the public about what was happening in that conflict. In the process, we succeeded in literally shutting down the nine campuses of the University of California.
But coupled with the success was the price of success. To this day I sometimes have dreams of being chased down the UCLA 'steps' by baton wielding police and their airborne helicopters after one particularly massive demonstration against the invasion of Cambodia. 1 can still smell the tear gas, and these memories are not a 'pleasant walk down memory lane'.

There's battle lines being drawn. Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds. Getting so much resistance from behind.
What a field-day for the heat, a thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say, hooray for our side
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what's that sound, everybody look what's going down
(Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth, 1967)

We sincerely believed we had the answer to problems affecting our nation and the world, and we acted on those beliefs. While we may not have been in the majority, we certainly made our voices heard to the majority of American society, and in the process forged a new view of matters by that majority:

All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There's a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion! People in motion!
(Scott McKenzie, San Francisco, 1967)

On many sides, the individual interests of those who sincerely wished to 'do something' about the cultural situation of 'the 1960's' had widespread and enduring consequences - not all of which were foreseen. Among these unforeseen consequences was the eventual splintering of the progressive reform movement into major splinter groups.
The first group to leave were those who despaired of reform, and who proceeded to look for more forceful ways to produce positive change. These included the Weathermen, the Yippies, and various black groups including the Panthers and the Nation of Islam. In many ways these were the most creative and energetic of youthful activists, and their loss left many of us in a state of shock, and without momentum.
The second shock built more slowly, but hit much closer to home when it did arrive. Women left the movement en mass, to seek out their own definition of independence, freedom and dignity. Up until the point at which they left, many of us had been thinking in terms of generic humanity, of 'mankind'. The Women's Liberation Movement made it painfully clear that these ways of thinking were short sighted and out of date.
The result of all this splintering was a weakening of the movement overall, and an opportunity for those favouring reaction to capitalise on the disorganised state of progressives. Law enforcement now had a clear mandate to crush any who advocated the 'violent overthrow of the U.S. Government' - although that seemed rather odd to me, since this government was born in revolution. Rightist politicians had a comparatively unified voting block compared to the left, and it showed in 1968 with the election of Nixon as president.
It was not a happy time for progressives, and it got much worse as time passed. In large part the re-emergence of the right and conservatism in America was and is not due to new ideas or policies on their part, but due to the abdication of the struggle by the left. The left disintegrated its own organisation through centrifugal spin offs, and has conspicuously ignored the interests of the vast 'middle American' working class (translation: the majority of voters). This amounted to conceding victory to the 'other side' of the struggle, a concession in which many of us who lived through the 'era of the 1960's' simply refuse to acquiesce. We are still feeling the after affects of these mistakes and will continue to do so until a new initiative of progressivism returns to the battlefield of ideas.

American Youth

At the same time as we marched, we were not missionaries, or fanatics.
Part of this 'new explanation' was the free, open and easy way we lived our lives. We loved life, and partied as hard as we studied! From days in the early 1960's when we thought it adventurous to make our own beer (and get deathly ill by drinking it) to the days when we 'turned on, tuned in, and dropped out' to various substances, we participated fully, profoundly and energetically in living life to the fullest:

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
Tell 'cm a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call
And you've just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice, I think she'll know
When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head! Feed your head!
(Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit, 1968)
Like a true nature's child, we were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high, that I never wanna die!
(Steppenwolf, Born to be Wild, 1968)

Some of us came dangerously close to the cliff edge in various respects. A few even plunged over that edge and into the abyss.

Kicks just keep gettin' harder to find,
And all your kicks ain't bringin' you peace of mind
Before you find out it's too late. you better get straight
(Paul Revere and the Raiders, Kicks, 1966)

But the vast majority of us not only survived, but enjoyed the experience. We felt we had an obligation to experience life to the fullest, just as we had an obligation to succeed academically and be socially active. Who were we to deny others their right to enjoy life in this fashion? We were most energetically enjoying life in our own way!
All of this activity centred on some very simple themes, so simple we were astonished to find that previous generations had seemed to ignore them.
The first of these was Peace. Not just the absence of war, but a positive force for good. Described with other words, it might be called tolerance, understanding, opportunity, or conviviality. When given a chance, we felt that peace could transform humanity:

Ev'rybody's talking about
This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.
All we are saying is give peace a chance
(John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, Give Peace a Chance, 1971)

Peace provided the environment and opportunity for the second great pillar of values in the 'era of the 1960's' - Love. Love was to be the basis for personal interactions in this new society:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It's the only thing, that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
No, not just for some but for everyone.
(Jackie DeShannon, What the World Needs Now, 1965}

And once peace and love had been established as the bases of behaviour, then the result would spring forth - Freedom:

If there's a man who is down and needs a helpin' hand
All it takes is you to understand and to pull him through, ah-hah-unh
Seems to me we got to solve if individually, ah-hah-unh
And I'll do unto you what you do to me
Shout it from the mountain on out to the sea
No two ways about it, people have to be free
Ask me my opinion, my opinion will be
Nat'ral situation for a man to be free
(Rascals, People Got to Be Free, 1968)

This was what we were about - peace, love and freedom. Not just for special interest groups, or the nation at large, but for each and every individual within the nation, and across the world.
But a strange thing happens when each individual experiences freedom. There is an explosion of choices out of each person. Often some of these choices are made with which others heartily disagree. Not everyone prized peace and love as much as freedom. Others interpreted freedom as the right to choose what others would term domination or slavery. Still others would call slavery what we termed partnership, or even freedom. What some called freedom we called debauchery, or being 'totally wasted'. So many definitions of peace, love and freedom emerged that it was as if we had inherited all the confusion experienced by the builders of the Tower of Babel.
Further, each of these choices led down different paths, making any concerted effort to realise common and progressive goals even more difficult. Each of these paths also made it increasingly hard to garner the support of’ middle/working America' and its votes, which would ensure that progressive ideas were transformed into progressive law and policy. The result was as if a bright and shining star had exploded, sending off splinters of light in every direction, but with a total loss of illumination on the need for progress.

 

Looking Back - and Ahead! While the political and social aspects of the 'era of the 1960's' may have failed to meet our expectations, the personal and psychological aspects of this cultural revolution were a resounding victory. Much remains to be done, but much was and remains accomplished. Let's look again at Peace, Love and Freedom, and see where they have improved as well as taking a look at what they hold for the future.
Today, in every respect, we have more freedom as persons to act the way we wish than we did in the 1960's. We have more freedom of speech, more freedom of appearance, more freedom of social interaction than we did then. We have more freedom in education, more freedom in the job market and more freedom in the areas of thought and morality than we did then. Each of these increased freedoms is most certainly a result of our struggle at that time.
We also have a vastly increased 'consciousness' of the idea of peace as a positive and independent force for good in the world. We have a much more critical view of war and violence between groups and countries now than we did then - and we are more quickly vocal to make that critical view heard. We also have a much more suspect and critical approach to the domination of the 'corporate state' with all its economic and social arrogance than we did then. And we have a much more healthy approach to doctrinaire and totalitarian 'solutions' - such as Marxist-Leninism, totalitarianism and religious fanaticism now than we did then. This increase in the 'consciousness of peace' is due clearly to the generation which first voiced its opposition to war, violence and domination in the 1960's.
We also have a much more mature and vibrant sense of Love as a force for good as well. We participate in vastly more private and public funded assistance to 'have nots' now than we did then. We are certainly more tolerant of people who do not share our world or personal views now than we were then. We have a more loving view of our intimate partners now than then, and permit them to live with us as true partners, not consigned to predetermined roles. This consideration, charity and positive feeling of Love toward others is largely due to the social and personal progress made in that area during this era.
The Lasting Legacy

We have spoken about the fracturing of the progressive movement of the 'era of the 1960's'. So what, if anything, was the unifying factor which still persists after that shining light exploded into oblivion? The unifying factor was the self. Each group, each individual of that era was - at heart - motivated by an increased desire for self-determination.
Whether black, female, Hispanic, white university student, revolutionary, middle class American or conservative reactionary, the desire was for greater power over their own direction and decisions. That power was achieved as a result of the 'era of the 1960's' and has persisted to this day - despite conservative governments, recession and persistent discrimination and lack of opportunity in some areas.
In future, success will belong to that socio-political approach in America which makes best use of this desire for self-determination. At present, those with a conservative approach appear to be in the ascendant due to their ability to exploit the desire for individualism, privacy and freedom of choice. But I believe this ascendancy contains within it an irresistible contradiction.
Conservatism has always been dependent upon the conformity to old ideas of person, state, and tradition. In contrast, it is the liberal outlook which most cherishes freedom, privacy, innovation and economic progress. If progressives were to make vigorous use of these concepts, they could recapture the mass of the American voting public, who have no desire at all to be permanently wedded to old concepts, which have not worked in their interests, and do not benefit them now. We await only effective 'Communicators'.

A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man. " —Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824.

I am proud to say that our generation exercised that right, with its consequences - both good and bad - for our society. Because of the revolution of our generation, we are freer today to exercise that self-determination and make our own way, thanks to that era.

   
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