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The Berkeley Student Rebellion of 1964

by Mario Savio

            There are quite a few students who have attended school at Berkeley who went South to work with the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee, and who have been active in the civil rights movement in the Bay Area. At the end of last summer, some of these students returned from Mississippi, having taken part in the CORE Summer Project. I was one of these returning students. We were greeted by an order from the Dean of Students' Office that the kind of on-campus political activity which had resulted in our taking part in the Summer Project was to be permitted no longer.

            It is a lot easier to become angry at injustices done to other people than at injustices done to oneself. The former requires a lower degree of political consciousness, is compatible with a higher political boiling point. You become slowly, painfully aware of those things which disturb you in the ways society oppresses you by taking part in activities aimed at freeing and helping others. There is less guilt to suffer in opposing the arbitrary power exercised over someone else than in opposing the equally unjust authority exercised over yourself. Thus, the order banning student politics on campus was an ideal locus of fierce protest. It combined an act of bureaucratic violence against the students themselves with open attack on student participation in the Bay Area civil rights movement. The seemingly inexhaustible energy which the Berkeley students had so long devoted to the struggle for Negro rights was now turned squarely on the vast, faceless University administration. This is what gave the Free Speech Movement its initial impetus.

            But the new restrictions were not aimed so much at curtailing activity which would result in civil rights work in the South as at halting the very active participation of students in the civil rights movement in the Bay Area. The University was apparently under considerable pressure to "crackdown" on the student activists from the right-wing in California business and politics. William Knowland. who has become symbolic of this pressure, managed Goldwater's statewide campaign; the reactionary Oakland Tribune, which Knowland publishes, has played a major role in creating the myth of Berkeley, the "little red school house." Last March when about 160 demonstrators, including many University students, were arrested at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel while protesting a discriminatory hiring policy, Don Mulford, conservative Republican State Assemblyman from the University district, was severely critical of the Berkeley administration for not expelling the then arrested students. Student pressure on Bay Area business resulted in business pressure on the University; the University responded by trying to restrict student political activity.

            The liberal University of California administration would have relished the opportunity to show off in the national academic community a public university enjoying complete political and academic freedom and academic excellence. And if student politics had been restricted either to precinct work for the Democrats and Republicans, or to advocacy (by public meetings and distribution of literature) of various forms of wholesale societal change, then I don't believe there would have been the crisis there was. In any case an accommodation between the bureaucrats and the students could more easily have been achieved. The corporations represented on the Board of Regents welcome Young Democrats and Young Republicans as eager apprentices, and sectarian "revolutionary" talk can be tolerated because it is harmless. The radical student activists, however, are a mean threat to privilege. Because the students were advocating consequential actions (because their advocacy was consequential): the changing of hiring practices of particular establishments, the ending of certain forms of discrimination by certain concrete acts -- because of these radical acts, the administration's restrictive ruling was necessary.

            Which is easy to understand. The First Amendment exists to protect consequential speech; First Amendment rights to advocacy come into question only when actions advocated are sufficiently limited in scope, and sufficiently threatening to the established powers. The action must be radical and possible: picket lines, boycotts, sit-ins, rent strikes. The Free Speech Movement demanded no more -- nor less -- than full First Amendment rights of advocacy on campus as well as off: that, therefore, only the courts have power to determine and punish abuses of freedom of speech. The Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate endorsed this position on December 8, 1964 by declaring against all University regulation of the content of speech or advocacy -- by a vote of 824 to 115.

            Probably the most meaningful opportunity for political involvement for students with any political awareness is in the civil rights movement. Indeed, there appears to be little else in American life today which can claim the allegiance of men. Therefore, the action of the administration, which seemed to the students to be directed at the civil rights movement, was felt as a form of emasculation, or attempted emasculation. The only part of the world which people could taste, that wasn't as flat and stale as the middleclass wasteland from which most of the University people have come, that part of the world was being cleanly eliminated by one relatively hygienic administrative act. The student response to this "routine directive" was outraged protest.

            Student civil rights action in the Bay Area has been significant and will become increasingly so, I am sure we haven't seen the last of the administration's attempts either to limit, or, if possible, to eliminate activity of this kind. On the other side, I think last semester has shown that such attempts, if drastic enough to be effective, are bound to end in disaster. So, what we have to fear is not some extreme act, such as was attempted last September, but rather petty harassments of various sorts, and the not-so-petty exclusion of "non-students" from the campus, toward which legislation recently passed by the State Legislature is directed. I believe it unlikely for the students to rally in opposition to such harassment; probably we shall have to be content with opposing decisively only gross provocation, which probably now the Administration has learned not to attempt.

            But the civil rights movement is only one aspect of the dual motivation of FSM support. And this is so because people do find it easier to protest injustices done to others: even adverting to injustice done oneself is often too painful to be sustained for very long. When you oppose injustice done others, very often -- symbolically sometimes, sometimes not so symbolically -- you are really protesting injustice done to yourself. In the course of the events of the fall, students became aware, ever more clearly, of the monstrous injustices that were being done to them as students.

            We found we were being denied the very possibility of ``being a student" -- unquestionably a right. We found we were severed from our proper roles: students denied the meaningful work one must do in order to be a student. Instead we were faced with a situation in which the pseudo-student role we were playing was tailor-made to further the interests of those who own the University, those vast corporations in whose interest the University is managed. Time past when the skills required of laborers were nowhere near so great as the ones required now, bosses built schools for their own children. Now the bosses build schools for the children of their workers. They build schools to further their own interests.

            Accordingly, the schools have become training camps -- and proving grounds -- rather than places where people acquire education. They become factories to produce technicians rather than places to live student lives. And this perversion develops great resentment on the part of the students. Resentment against being subjected to standard production techniques of speedup and regimentation; against a tendency to quantify education -- virtually a contradiction in terms. Education is measured in units, in numbers of lectures attended, in numbers of pages devoted to papers, number of pages read. This mirrors the gross and vulgar quantification in the society at large -- the real world -- where everything must be reduced to a lowest common denominator, the dollar bill. In our campus play-world we use play money, course units.

            It is understandable that resentment should develop among the students. However, it was not always so easy for the students to understand the causes of their own resentment. It is not as easy to see what is oppressing the subject as to see what is oppressing the others. Nevertheless, we students did become more and more aware of the factory education which we were being provided.

            It is significant that the President of the University of California should be the foremost ideologist of this "Brave New World" conception of education. President Clark Kerr dreamed up the frightening metaphors: "the knowledge industry," "the multiversity," which has as many faces as it has publics, be they industries of various kinds, or the Federal Government, especially the Pentagon and the AEC. He also invented the title "the captain of bureaucracy," which he is, by analogy with earlier captains of industry. He is the person directly charged with steering the mighty ship along the often perilous course of service to its many publics in government and industry. Not to the public, but to its many publics, the Kerrian whore is unlawfully joined.

            Those disciplines with a ready market in industry and government are favored and fostered: the natural sciences, engineering, mathematics, and the social sciences when these serve the braintrusting propaganda purposes of "liberal" government. The humanities naturally suffer, so that what should be the substance of undergraduate education suffers. The emphasis is given to research instead of to teaching undergraduates. Teaching graduate students is less effected by this prostitution since such teaching is intimately bound to research. But the undergraduate has become the new dispossessed; the heart has been taken from his education -- no less so for science students -- for the humanities are no longer accorded the central role they deserve in the university.

            And of course there are whole areas which never see the light in undergraduate instruction. Who takes undergraduate courses in the history of the labor movement, for example? Certainly no one at the University of California. Likewise, American Negro history is a rarity and is still more rarely taken seriously. To be taken at all seriously it would have to be seen as central to all American history.

            In a healthy university an undergraduate would have time to do 'nothing.' To read what he wants to read, maybe to sit on a hill behind the campus all alone or with a friend, to 'waste time' alone, dreaming in the Eucalyptus Grove. But the university, after the manner of a pesky social director, sees to it the student's time is kept filled with anti-intellectual harassment: those three credits in each three unit course, those meaningless units themselves. The notion that one can somehow reduce Introductory Quantum Mechanics and Philosophy of Kant to some kind of lowest common denominator (three units apiece) is totally irrational, and reflects the irrationality of a society which tries to girdle the natural rhythms of growth and learning by reduction to quantitative terms, much as it attempts to market the natural impulses of sex.

            From my experience, I should say the result is at best a kind of intellectual cacophony. There are little attractions in various places, philosophy in one corner, physics in another, maybe a bit of mathematics every now and again, some political science -- nothing bearing any relationship to anything else. Everything requires too many papers, too much attendance at lectures, twothirds of which should never have been given, and very few of which resulted from any serious thought later than several years or earlier than several minutes before the lecture period. It is easy to see that there should be real resentment on the part of the students. But it is resentment whose causes are, as we have seen, very difficult for the student to perceive readily. That is why what occurred last semester gained its initial impetus from the very different involvements of what are mostly middle-class students in the struggles of the Negro people. Thus, it was both the irrationality of society, that denies to Negroes the life of men, and the irrationality of the University, that denies to youth the life of students, which caused last semester's rebellion.

Reprinted from The Free Speech Movement and the Negro Revolution, News & Letters, July 1965.

Copyright 1965 by Mario Savio, 1998 by Lynne Hollander. This work may not be reproduced in any medium which is sold, subject to access fee, or supported by advertising, without explicit prior consent by the copyright holder.

  This page last changed 02 December, 2000


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