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Harvard eased into its 337th Fall this week, either by the sheer momentum of time or the perserverance of its deans and administrators, or perhaps even by the grace of God. It was a curious week for those who observed the pendulum of student activism begin its wide swing in the year and a half prior to the 1968 Presidential election. Now, in another election year, they are witnessing the seeming return of that pendulum to a steady resting position. But this apparent steadiness is deceiving.
Harvard might well appear dormant by comparison to 1968. Disinterest and confusion hamper the initial efforts of liberals trying to boost the campaign of Sen. George McGovern. (After all, the polls--which have assumed an absurdly prominent role in a Presidential year tainted by media overkill--show Massachusetts within President Nixon's reach.)
Radical politics, which have altered so drastically since the nationwide student strike of 1970, still lack a new forcefulness of purpose.
And the two visible groups of 1972. PALC and the Graduate Student Union, are planning long-range programs rather than taking immediate actions.
There is superficial evidence to bolster the notion that students have slowed to an activist crawl. For the past two years, SDS and PL have dropped further and further from sight. A student strike last Spring faded out in less than a week, and an attempt to revive it in May failed utterly.
Even the zip of the McGovern campaign has diminished over a summer in which the Democratic nominee lost the momentum of nomination in a staggering series of tactical blunders. McGovern organizers hesitate to give specific numbers of workers because they are still measuring the losses of the summer.
These losses are not localized: President Nixon is discouragingly far ahead to a Democrat pondering a campaign role. But despite the bleary immediate prospect for the McGovern campaign, despite the changing nature of activist student organizations. Harvard is not politically detached. More likely, its students are only now catching up to the incredibly rapid developments between 1967 and 1970--a period in which activism sifted down the educational ladder to become a new vogue for wily high school freshmen.
The antiwar movement, which first bestirred students, raced ahead unhindered until 1970 when Nixon's strategy of delay finally exhausted its numbers but for occasional tantrums such as Mayday 1971. Now, after a two-year breather, students are looking for new issues and new expressions of their biases--and this search hinges on a certain thoughtfulness.
Repeated frustrations in community activism once steered black students from local organizing to the more cosmic issue of Harvard's ownership of Gulf stock. Harvard's graduate students, who passed through college with the first wave of antiwar activists in 1967 and 1968, found a new cause in their union fight last Spring. What remains undetermined is the direction in which undergraduates will channel political energies.
It seems improbable that current Harvard classes are precursors of another silent generation. They have been politicized over the past five years, and this politicization has wrought new biases. Some students have drifted leftward while others have abandoned the radical heritage of 1967-70. But very few have remained above the fray and as a group students will not likely resort to the political dumbfoundedness of a generation ago.
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