A recent New York Times article entitled, "On Campus, the 60s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire," highlights a new study that found many professors active during the 1960s are retiring and being replaced by younger professors with more "moderate" views on the world. It states: "When it comes to those who consider themselves 'liberal activists,' 17.2 percent of the 50-64 age group take up the banner compared to only 1.3 percent of professors 35 and younger."
This is something that should be lamented and cause concern for those of us interested in creating social change. I graduated from UCLA in 2002 and the direction of my life took was heavily influenced by these activist professors. Like many privileged high school students who make up the majority of who get into the top universities, I grew up in the suburbs, where many of my friends did not have to work and could focus on their extracurricular activities, SATs, AP courses, and grades needed to impress college admissions officers. Our only access to poverty was through the television, or the occasional homeless person outside the supermarket. We are the children of Ronald Reagan, the visionary who ushered in a new culture of extreme individualism, where Americans became more obsessed with material possessions, wealth, and ignored calls for public service and social justice. And as we entered high school and college in the 1990s, the Clinton administration did little to change this culture.
I came to college obsessed only with creating the perfect resume to get into law school, where I could gain the skills necessary to get that six figure salary job. It was the more leftist professors who challenged me to question my insular view of the world. One of my professors, Paul Von Blum, an over 65 year old militant white guy with crazy hair and a beard, taught a class called the Art of Social Conscience, where we studied art critical of society or as he stated "art that makes you uncomfortable." He was active in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, went to the South to help register African Americans and fought against the Vietnam War. He painted for us a picture of those tumultuous times through his stories, pieces written by activists at the time, and art.
He would make radical statements about the police, the government, and the culture of apathy within my generation. They often caused lively debate, absent from other courses. And though the class focused on the past, it forced us to reflect on our own times. His anger against injustice stirred up something inside me and I got involved with more campus activism from the struggle to unionize the janitors on campus, to strengthening the ethnic studies departments. I even started to migrate outside the confines of campus to downtown Los Angeles where I participated in rallies against police brutality and when on precinct walks with the ACLU and the union.
High school history never told us about the recent injustices committed by our government, skipping over Watergate, Vietnam, COINTELPRO, Iran-Contra, and other milestones that would cause children to question authority. I can get the "moderate" view simply by rereading my high school history book. I want the professor who makes me pick up course material at the independent book store.
These professors not only taught; they inspired and challenged us to do more for the world. They instilled within a lot of us a sense of social responsibility and aroused our idealism.
The movement and activism generated by the Obama campaign should give us hope that the young people today will experience first hand what is like to fight for something, whether its around the Iraq war, global warming, or poverty. They can become the professors of the future who will continue the tradition inspiring the youth to take action. Interestingly enough, the person who helped Obama develop a strategy for organizing was Professor Marshal Ganz at Harvard, who was a former organizer with the United Farm Workers union and worked directly with Cesar Chavez. Perhaps with an Obama victory and a more active youth population, within the next decade, the "moderate" trend may reverse itself.