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At Magdalene College, Cambridge, I soon fell in with fellow American graduate students, many of them proud veterans of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. They tutored me in both political and lifestyle radicalism, and by New Year’s I was far removed from the studious, cautious “nice Jewish boy” I had been in September.
Memories of Cambridge center hazily on biking home at five in the morning, high on wine and talk of revolution, feeling fully alive and on the right side of history. The world was turning our way everywhere, it seemed—in Czechoslovakia, France, Chile, China, the classroom, the bedroom. And the music! Music had never sounded so good or been so meaningful —our music, loud and brave and wise.
Returning home in June ’68, I entered the Harvard Graduate School of Education committed to something like Chairman Mao’s “long march through the institutions.” In late August fate intervened in the form of John Monro, formerly dean of Harvard College, now head of freshman studies at a small, unaccredited, church-sponsored black college on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala. Monro was last-minute desperate for a Freshman English instructor, and my folder at the placement center suggested some promise and definite availability.
Dean Monro offered me the job on a Saturday morning, and I accepted it Sunday afternoon in a burst of pure ’60s logic: My father totally disapproved, saying it was too dangerous and a complete waste of my Ivy League education, so I knew it was exactly the correct thing to do.
I loved teaching at Miles College from the start, loved my students, my colleagues, the school’s soulful spirit, and its community outreach. In Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez recalls that his “earliest teachers, the nuns, made my success their ambition.” The Miles faculty members were like those nuns. At our closing meeting each year, we were informed of seniors finding good jobs or being accepted to graduate school. Always the oohs and ahs got especially animated at the mention of fellowship stipends and starting salaries. At first I heard crass materialism in those responses, but over the six years I stayed there, I came to appreciate the heartfelt joy being expressed—a selfless delight in others’ successes. This delight in giving of oneself remains at the center of my calling as a teacher and my values as a citizen. It is, long-term, the best carryover from my time as a rapidly evolving 22-year-old. Singer David Crosby has famously noted of our generation that “we were right about Vietnam; we were right about civil rights; we were wrong about drugs.” In my forty-year retrospective, I see now that we were wrong about much else.
We overrated intellectual guides such as political theorist Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and social philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and overstated the general worth of political leftism. We trusted everyone with our look and lingo, never imagining that the friendly guy with the droopy mustache and Rolling Stones T-shirt could be a con man or agent provocateur. We cared too little about winning the hearts and minds of people unlike ourselves. We mistook truculent rhetoric for program and in our cocksure impatience we undermined priceless cultural traditions. We scoffed at personal discipline and mislabeled responsible parenting, schooling, and police work as “fascist.” We never thought through what to replace long-established authority with once we had expunged it.
Kids today often associate the 1960s with fun, missing the passion for societal change that inspired us, even in our hedonism. We thought we were ridding society of bourgeois repression, its fear of the untamed and ecstatic. Trust me, it was no party getting trampled by police horses in London, beaten by counter-demonstrators in South Boston, and threatened by armed Ku Klux Klansmen on the far end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
I wouldn’t have missed being a committed activist in 1968, but I recognize that some of our idealism was naive and shortsighted. Now I only hope that others who are younger can forgive us enough to learn from our virtues as well as our defects and blind spots.