Columbia 68 and the World

Next Wednesday we leave for this event in New York. Participants are being asked to submit stories of their lives since the 1968 strike to a collection stored here (at “Stories 68-08.pdf”). This is what I sent.

In January, when we first received word of next week’s reunion, my wife Jan and I agreed to go. The topics and speakers promised a pooling of wisdom about how to relate to a world which had become worse than the one we confronted head on in 1968. It would also be a chance see old friends and enjoy April in New York.

A few weeks later I changed my mind. Lets look at our obligations and finances and see if this trip will really fit into our schedule of grandparenting, visits with far flung children, our niece’s wedding, a long planned bicycle tour, I argued. Having just declared her candidacy in an upcoming city council election, Jan conceded it might be too much. But what really had made me back out was reading the bios accumulating on the website. Among the participants in this conference, my credentials were severely lacking in moral clarity, consistent commitment and creative innovation. I didn’t want to have to apologize or to brag.

At a party celebrating the success of “Focus the Nation: Global Warming Solutions,” an all day teach-in drawing 4000 attendees at the traditionally conservative University where I teach, one of the student organizers said to me, “I hope some time in the future, this group will get together to celebrate what we did today, like you are doing at that Columbia reunion.” How to tell her I wasn’t going? When a friend wrote from Chicago of his plans to attend, even the disheartening sniping on the website couldn’t keep me from ordering tickets on Travelocity with Jan’s immediate approval.

This shilly-shally recalls foggy memories. In or out of the building? In, then out, then in again, until the bust.

In 1968, I was a first year Acting Assistant Professor of English, closer to students in age and outlook than to most faculty colleagues. I’d entered the Stanford PhD program in 1963 after graduating from Columbia as an undergraduate, joining the Peace Corps and getting kicked out after ten weeks of training for being “too intellectual” and having the “wrong attitude toward authority.”

That was my first bit of political education”the recruiter, a Harvard professor, had stated that the Peace Corps wanted people who wouldn’t like the military and who questioned authority. I thought I was being good, but the culling of recruits was done by the CIA. Graduate school was a reprieve from the draft notice I’d received–forcing me to attend an example of the “Channeling” performed by the Selective Service system at the time. Stanford felt more like prison than privilege, and building an anti war movement and taking drugs were where the real education occurred. I liked discovering precedents for both these activities in literary and philosophical classics, but I had trouble mastering the professional skills that would allow me to finish a PhD thesis.

At a 1966 poetry seminar in the Free University of Palo Alto, I found Jan, my partner who shared my love of words and my inclination for action. We moved in together a couple of weeks after meeting, and she immediately organized a rent strike which forced the University to allow women the right to live off campus. A year later we married.

There was a bull market for English faculty in 1967 and the job at Columbia materialized largely because I was liked by my undergraduate teachers. This should have been an honor beyond my wildest fantasies, since as an undergraduate the institution was the church of my salvation from lower middle class life in the Bronx. But the blessing uttered by Dean Truman at my graduation, “Keep the Faith,” rang hollow by the time I got back.

I taught Humanities and Composition and a course in Shakespeare’s history plays whose value I found not in force of language or theatrical structure but in exposing the evils of war-mongering political leaders. When students took over the hallowed halls, I was both horrified and exhilarated. I found Rudd’s and Gold’s and JJ’s oratory alternately spellbinding and repugnant, but when Michael Klare and Richard Greeman and Paul Rockwell delivered their impeccably researched indictments of Alma Mater, I heard the real voice of reason, in contrast to the legalistic deliberations of the Ad Hoc Faculty Group which ignored the opportunities of action. After alternating for days between meetings of the strikers and the faculty, I turned my back on Philosophy and brought my sleeping bag into Fayerweather. Jan joined us there every night after coming home from teaching at Elizabeth Irwin High School downtown.

The summer of 68 we lived in a tent at Total Loss Farm, a commune near Brattleboro Vermont founded by some of the Columbia strikers and a Boston contingent of writers for Liberation News Service. Between gardening vegetables and cavorting naked in the Beaver Pond, I was trying to wrestle my notes on Innocence and Experience and the pastoral tradition into a presentable thesis chapter, but it wasn’t coming together.

Playing the role of academic during the following school year got more strained, and so did that of radical reformer. I didn’t think the increasing militancy of the antiwar movement would achieve its ever widening revolutionary goals, and I saw that much of its energy was being expended in faction fights. Instead of joining the Weathermen or pursuing experiments with open marriage, Jan and I spent the next summer in search of fun as a couple of backpack tourists in Europe and North Africa.

Upon our return, the English department let me know that without a PhD or any publications other than a literary analysis of the work of R. Crumb in the Columbia Spectator’s Connections, my contract wouldn’t be renewed the following year. I decided to resign after the Fall Semester and go out with a splash of a course called “Pastoral and Utopia: Visionary Conceptions of the Good Life.” It had a large enrollment of Columbia and Barnard students who were required to develop their own assignments and grade themselves. Often under the influence of drugs, I oscillated between feeling like a guru who could lead a group of followers to create a pastoral utopia of our own and a loser incapable of meeting the challenges of adulthood.

In Spring 1970, deciding to leave our rent-subsidized apartment on Amsterdam Ave, Jan and I liquidated most of our earthly possessions. We fitted out a Ford Econoline Van for a trip to Canada, where we found camp counselor jobs for the summer. Crossing the border, we felt a huge burden lift. We decided to have a baby and use our meager savings to buy property, live close to the land, and escape a crumbling civilization. We ended up on the coast of B.C., near Lund, a remote fishing village at the northern end of Highway 101. Property prices were low enough there that we could purchase some acreage. It turned out the woods were full of back-to-the-landers like us, émigrés from Toronto, Montreal, London and New York. Two other Columbia strikers also arrived and have remained there, until the present day.

The struggle for our nuclear family’s survival in the woods replaced the struggle against the evils of war and injustice, forcing me to work for most of a year in the nearby largest pulp and paper mill in the world. But our fellow bush hippies shared a desire for small, sustainable and self-sufficient community. Together with neighbors we were able to develop playgroups for children, a local school, a food buyers coop, a summer camp, and a regional district land-use plan centered on watershed “shires.” Later, my wife and I founded a local satellite of a junior college, which thrives today. Friends started a network of government agencies that provided services to the local population and steady employment for outsiders with college degrees.

After nine years some of the appeal of rural life and of membership in the extended family of the village gave way to a desire for return to the metropole. We wanted to get closer to our aging parents, to provide our two children with a wider range of life choices, to take on some of the challenges that we had left behind. The war was over and so was the cultural revolution. For me a prime motivation to leave was the desire to complete my unfinished dissertation on pastoral literature. Stanford, the University which had rescued me from the draft, allowed me to return and provided us inexpensive family housing. Jan got a job as assistant dean of Graduate Housing, based on her community organizing experience in Lund. I discovered the joys of poring through obscure medieval poems and taking up interdisciplinary threads that produced some minor scholarly discoveries. Reflection on my past since the Columbia strike led to the conclusion that pastoral’s affirmation of innocence and rejection of city life arises out of the young person’s reluctance to take on the familial and social burdens of maturity. Once I grasped that, I was able to solve the conundrum about the structure of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheards Calendar that had stumped me for fifteen years. My dissertation, later a book, was titled Youth Against Age: Generational Strife in Renaissance Poetry.

The realist outlook that superseded activist politics and rural exile was uneasy. Within six months of our return to the U.S., Reagan was elected President, making clear that the country had moved 180 degrees in the opposite direction from where we were trying to push it and that the state was under corporate and military control with a Hollywood figurehead. The most hopeful political cause at this time was feminism. We moved from Palo Alto to Claremont where Jan got a job as Dean at Scripps, a woman’s college. I took a lot of responsibility for the kids, taught as a part-timer and organized a conference called, “He She or What?” to push for the adoption of a gender-neutral personal pronoun. My writer’s block was gone and I was publishing scholarly articles, but now there were no jobs. I got some training and started a little tree trimming business. Jan lost her position due to murky political dynamics, and in 1984 we found ourselves with two children and without housing or jobs.

Stanford again came to the rescue with an offer of a lecturer’s position in English which included developing a curriculum and coordinating a track in their newly revived Western Culture Program. My qualifications were based both on what I had learned at Columbia as an undergraduate and on what I had unlearned there during the sixties. The Program was to change the canon by incorporating previously neglected voices–African-American, Asian American, Latino, Gay and Lesbian and female–and was to critique as well as lionize Eurocentric male classics.

For four years I worked as a colleague with some of my old professors and brilliant young faculty members from many departments. Most of us were convinced that we could fight for justice without disrupting the orderly functioning of the university, that we could advance knowledge and advance our careers at the same time. The cold war was winding down, personal computers were showing up, and inside academia at least it seemed like progressives were gaining dominance. There were minuses however. I would never get tenure at Stanford and rents were going through the roof. With a cold eye, Jan observed the consequences of Reaganism: the middle class was in decline, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The question was which side will we be on? She went to law school and worked for the Santa Clara county counsel. When the county was sued by a right-wing foundation trying to overturn its affirmative action plan for hiring women in skilled trades (Johnson vs. Transportation Agency), her job was to write the draft Respondent’s Brief and work with the attorneys researching and editing their arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her side won.

With Jan about to graduate from Law School, our kids aged 17 and 12, and me turning 44, utopia was looking like the place we could buy a house and create a foreseeable future for ourselves. Jan agreed to go to wherever my search for a tenure track job led, even Jacksonville Illinois or San Bernardino. There was only one offer, and when we drove down to check out Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and saw the green, green hills, it felt like we’d died and gone to heaven. We’ve been here for twenty years, but we still feel our hometown is Lund B.C. where we spend a month every summer with children and grandchildren.

We have remained involved in causes consistent with the visions of forty years ago. In addition to her home based law practice, Jan has spearheaded several election campaigns fighting sprawl development and has served on the City Council. I’m treasurer of our local chapter of the Sierra Club.

My essays, “Shakespeare’s Pacifism,” “Holy War in Henry the Fifth,” “Moses and Machiavellism,” “The Prophet Disarmed: Milton and the Quakers,” have been cited and reprinted and led to an invitation to write a book, Shakespeare and the Bible, published by Oxford University Press in 2000. All of this work, produced in the 1990’s, centers on the connections between war and religion, a topic at the time I had no idea would be a central preoccupation of the 21st century.

Cal Poly owns ten thousand beautiful acres of land that few people were aware of. In 1996, I sat in front of a bulldozer while leading a campaign to save a riparian corridor of ancient oaks. A few years later the University funded my bioregional “Cal Poly Land Project,” which includes a website, an interdisciplinary course, and the production of a book: Cal Poly Land: A Field Guide. Since 2002 my Composition courses””Writing About Place” and “Writing about Sustainability””and literature courses””Ecolit: Reading and Writing the Landscape”– deal with environmental issues.

The most encouraging political development I’ve experienced in this benighted era has been the activation of Cal Poly students, mostly in engineering and business, around the sustainability issues that they realize they wont be able to escape in the future. Working and playing with them, sharing some of the lessons of the sixties, appreciating the difference between their pragmatic strategies and earlier apocalyptic radicalism has refueled the old flame.

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