1968: The Year that Rocked the World


I was first aware of 1968 back in 2004 when the author was a guest on CSPAN’s Booknotes.  I IMG_2893was not able to watch that episode for some now forgotten reason, but ran across the book in my local library recently.  I picked it up and thought I would give it a read.
I knew about the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the infamous Demographic Convention in Chicago, but what was new  was the global student protests that also took place that year.  Though the Vietnam war was the backdrop for much of the protests in the United States, there were also major student protests in Mexico, Poland, France, and Czechoslovakia.  Mr. Kurlansky writes his book in a chronological order of the months rather than themes, but throughout the book we see these student protests again and again.

For those of us who did not live through the events occurring that year, this book is a great resource to compare the student protests on campus in 1968 with the protests that have recently sprung up on several campuses.  What is is most interesting is to see the differences of the seriousness of the complaints, or how the protests were handled.

Many students where obviously protesting the draft into the army, but what we may forget is that though many 18, 19, and 20 year olds where dying for their county, they couldn’t vote.  Furthermore, students were heading down south to help with voter turnout for blacks who were being pressured in various ways not to vote, or were involved in the civil rights movement in campus clubs. The Free Speech Movement, though starting in 1964, continued through 1968  with important developments.  One of the most well-known campus protests was the Columbia University Protest where students drew attention to the college’s new gymnasium which was perceived to have a segregationist design with the community of Harlem.

Compare those issues of the day with recent protests about Halloween costumes, the attempts to ban “inappropriate” speakers at commencements, and the demand for “safe spaces”  where students can retreat.  The comparisons are jarring.  In 1968 the protests were about opening up the campus to new ideas, whereas today it is about shutting out ideas that “offend.”

We also see the rise of student protests in the U.S. regarding coed dorms, a more tolerant view towards drugs, and a call for changes in college courses.  Anyone wanting to study the drift of the American campus towards its more liberal position would do well to start with this book.  The seeds sown then for campus protest show us that protesting is nothing new to campus life, but it does show us how much the protests on campuses today have been trivialized, and how liberals have abandoned some of the aims of the protests of the 60’s such as free speech.

I hope you will take a look at 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, watch the Booknotes interview or study up on the protests of 1968.  It is a testimony to the power of students, the beginning of the modern American university, and the model of protest.


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