From the Shelf The Battle for Morningside Heights
HO HUM. First the Columbia Spectator retold what had happened in Up Against the Ivy Wall. Then James Simon Kunen expostulated in The Strawberry Statement. And now, two years after the event, Roger Kahn offers another account of the 1968 spring disruptions at Columbia.
But Kahn's book promises to be different. The subtitle Why Students Rebel suggests a probe into the underlying causes of student unrest. A book which faces this problem using the events at Columbia as evidence might well become an important commentary on campus violence. Gene McCarthy, in the book's introduction, clearly believes that Kahn has achieved his goal:
... it is, in my opinion, the most important book which has been written on the issue of student unrest. Anyone who reads it will have not only knowledge of what happened at Columbia University but a better understanding of what students are thinking and of what they are most concerned about-of their aspirations, their fears, their hopes, their desperate uncertainties-and of what they would like from the university and from American society.
Unfortunately, Kahn, though a good researcher, is not a convincing commentator. He does a respectable job reporting the actual battle of The Battle for Morningside Height: he would make a good war correspondent. But instead of analyzing student rebellion with evidence extracted from the Columbia disruptions, Kahn concentrates on the battlefield action and never directly confronts the issue of student unrest itself. Why Students Rebel is not really the point of this book. Generated solely from the Columbia demonstrations, Kahn's limited commentary on general student protest is very unconvincing.
After acknowledging Kahn's failure to explain Why Students Rebel, however, the book may be enjoyed for its treatment of The Battle for Morningside Heights. Kahn, a middle-aged resident of New York City, "spent more than a year interviewing student radicals and moderates, faculty, administrators and the police" to produce this book. He is editorially very sympathetic with the specific student demands that challenged university racism and militarism but refuses to endorse more revolutionary ideological positions. This book is neither a political polemic nor a defense of the students; Kahn is writing primarily for his peers, a middle-aged generally liberal audience who want to know what went wrong at Columbia and at other universities that have had disruptions.
Kahn, above all, wants to determine for his liberal satisfaction what "went wrong" at Columbia in the spring of 1968. His effort in that respect rarely transcends his fascination with Mark Rudd. The closest Kahn comes to discovering the underlying causes of the crisis at Columbia is in the appendix, where he presents without commentary a chronology of politically relevant events since 1754 that have influenced Columbia.
THE TEXT of The Battle for Morningside Heights is entertaining-Kahn criticizes the student radicals, moderates, faculty, administrators and police that he has interviewed-but aside from a few perceptive considerations that Kahn takes time to develop, the majority of the book reads like a radio broadcast from a harried war reporter separated from the action by a glass wall. For example, Kahn reports:
Young people, like primitives, enjoy chanting. Students chant rhythmic cheers at football games and sing nonsense songs and make up words and phrases. Rhythm appeals to them and beyond that there is a security in knowing that you are chanting exactly what the person six rows away is chanting and that you both know how the chant began and how it will end.
On occasion, Kahn is factual. At other times, he reports the action melodramatically. But most of the book lists his impressions and opinions of the people involved in events he clearly believes to be of monumental significance to American society.
The Columbia trustees with their investment policies are the initial villains, along with Grayson Kirk, whose misdirection forced the conflict. Then the police became Kahn's villains during the bust. But aside from these two stereotypes, Kahn establishes and intelligent critique of a third group whose inaction forced the battle-the faculty.
Kahn's consideration of the faculty is very well presented. He describes the faculty role at Columbia, compares its ties with the administration, the students, and outside interests, and spends a small part of his book-the best part-accounting for faculty behavior during the crisis.
"Two realities dominate academic intercourse with the American war machine. The first is the university as a corporation lusting for profit. The second is the professor as whore." This passage, perhaps the most striking in the book, testifies to Kahn's ability as a prose stylist. When criticizing students, Kahn is confused, unable to categorize them into any clear pattern, but when dealing with faculty, Kahn sees a concrete evil, and attacks it dynamically:
"It is easier for a professor to sign a petition against Soviet imperialism than to attack Columbia's effort to colonize northern Manhattan: easier and less useful. It is not socially awkward for a professor to speak out against capital punishment; it may be awkward to oppose military grants for physicists who are colleagues." In short, "the faculty's dedication to anything beyond self-interest is surely questionable."
Kahn does distinguish between tenured and junior faculty. He credits some of the young faculty members with sensitivity towards the racist and militaristic aspects of the university and endorses their complaints. But Kahn sees junior faculty as an essentially powerless group prevented from implementing necessary changes by a rigid hierarchy whose top levels are complacently ruled by tenured professors. The few senior faculty who did attempt to take part in resolving the crisis after the disruptions began are properly credited by Kahn for their effort. But according to Kahn the majority of the tenured faculty succeeded only in tying up the entire faculty body in endless pointless meetings and discussions. And when a small, liberal group of faculty members walked out of the regular faculty meetings and formed their own group, they were unable to get a hearing for their proposals from either the administration of the radical students.
THERE ARE, of course, many participants in The Battle for Morningside Heights besides the faculty. Kahn gives sketchy consideration to Harlem sentiments and only a slightly more complete account of racism within the university. The Columbia trustees are major actors before the actual conflict, then are quickly forgotten as the police move in for the bust and Kahn does his battlefield reporting. Conservative students became caricatured as mindless jocks, and moderate students are ignored.
Kahn seems unable to decide on a presentation of the radical students who forced the conflict. On the one hand, he gives a very fair treatment of the communal radical discussions within the occupied buildings on such ideas as the "pre-Revolutionary state." Kahn seems to respect, even admire, the sincerity and commitment of many of the demonstrating students. But lest radicals consider him a friend, Kahn too often retreats to typical over-30 reaction as in this discussion of the radical's use of obscenity:
"The radical shrieking 'motherfucker' cries out for attention, for help and misbehaves all at once.
"He may not have had so much fun since he was a baby."