Political consciousness among the students of this country is traditionally passive. It is not that American undergraduates “don’t care,” or even that they “don’t care enough”; it is simply that they do not actively express whatever social responsibility they feel. Even at Harvard, which has served for centuries as an intellectual vanguard, nothing like the European tradition of university radicalism has ever existed.
Hence there is reason for surprise at the present fervor of Harvard undergraduates. At no time since the Thirties, and certainly not since the collapse of post-war idealism in 1948, has such a wave a political activism swept Cambridge. The sudden appearance, within a few months, of the single issue clubs—LCIC, SANE, 1001(f), and the Capital Punishment Committee—is tending to make obsolete the charge of “student apathy.”
Most startling about this phenomenon is the diversity of the issues involved. Such seemingly unrelated problems as integration, disarmament, loyalty oaths, and Caryl Chessman are all finding new activist outlets, and Harvard is only one of many colleges and universities where this sort of thing has occurred. The Woolworth’s pickets have appeared not only at such perennially crusading institutions as Swarthmore, but at Brown, Vassar, Smith, Hamilton, and other schools where nothing except an occasional pantyraid has ever mobilized the entire campus.
Certainly the sit-in picketer who declared that, “This idea has reached its time” was right: Integration as an issue seems to have reached a crisis in recent months. But the time itself is pregnant. With the revival of SANE after a two-year hibernation and the abrupt recognition of a convict named Chessman who has been fighting for his life for 10 years will attest, there had to be a time for these ideas to reach.
The issues are not new; the activity on their behalf is. What is there about this year that has made it so fruitful for the political conscience of American undergraduates? Without doubt many factors are involved: the end of the atmosphere of terror that pervaded the McCarthy era, the particularly dramatic circumstances of Chessman’s ninth stay of execution, the appearance of a determined student Negro leadership n the Atlanta sit-in crisis, the fact of an election year. But there might be an underlying explanation for the sudden change in climate which has vastly increased the scope of active protest: that nebulous phenomenon, “The Spirit of Geneva.”
Now “The Spirit of Geneva” has been a long time in filtering down to the American public. For nearly a decade—five years before and five years after the 1955 conference—the threat of instantaneous annihilation terrified an entire generation. There seemed no sense in working for an idealized future without the certainty that there was any future to work for. But, whether or not anything was accomplished during the 1955 summit negotiations, they did, in time, precipitate a marked shift in the public attitude—a relaxation of tension which is just now taking effect.
It is irrelevant that global destruction is still imminent. In a reaction delayed for almost five years, the public has again started to worry about tomorrow. Thus, tomorrow’s generation is heir to a new optimism, a belief that a cause whose realization is five or 10 or 50 years off is not a hopeless cause.
Those who believe that any sincerely-held idea is a mandate for action—be they liberal, conservative, pro- or anti-disarmament, pro- or anti-affidavit—can now stand up, or sit in, and be counted.