Dear Old Golden Rule Days
Sheldon Goldfarb, The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (2017).
In The Hundred-Year Trek, a coffee-table history of student life at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC), archivist Sheldon Goldfarb grracefully turns what could be a century-long trudge through history into a sprightly stroll across the green (if shrinking) lawns of a major West Coast post-secondary institution. Goldfarb works for the Alma Mater Society (AMS), UBC’s venerable student organization, and professionally keeps track of a century-plus of the adventures and business enterprises, as well as the low- and hi-jinks of its undergrads and graduate students.
Though a deft, appropriately light touch guides the narrative (divided by decades and school years, arranged as “items,” and fully illustrated), Goldfarb nonetheless somberly reminds us that the new university was born in the midst of World War I. Although the provincial legislature passed a bill to establish a university as early as 1908, post-secondary education in the resource-extracting West Coast economy was confined to an outreach program from Montreal’s McGill University that provided a 2-year junior college program (McGill BC). Not until 1915 was a free-standing institution established in the General Hospital area of the Fairview district of Vancouver (with plans to eventually move to the western edge of the city, Point Grey).
In short order, some of UBC’s first students were swallowed in the maw of the politically senseless, very deadly (17 million people killed) global conflict that we now call the First World War. The first student president of the AMS, Sherwood Lett, was in office only a short time before he headed off to serve in the war. Lett survived the European slaughter (and later went on to become Chief Justice of B.C., and Chancellor of the university), but 78 UBC students died on the battlefields, and hundreds more were wounded.
The first half-century of the university would also see an international economic Depression, a Second World War, and the eponymous long walk in 1922 from Fairview to Point Grey through downtown Vancouver that became known as The Great Trek. It was a student political march designed to pressure the provincial government to commit funds to complete the Point Grey campus. Interestingly, the Great Trek turned out to be one of those rare successes in the history of petitioning governments: the legislature authorized funding and the permanent university opened in Pt. Grey three years later, in 1925.
The first half-century (as well as the second fifty years, for that matter) also produced a surprising number of student-paid-for projects from athletic fields to student union buildings (with and without pubs) to swimming pools. At the same time as students were voluntarily coughing up fees for campus enhancement, they were also conducting a running battle with UBC’s administration and the B.C. government over access and tuition that continues to the very present.
The student body also graduated a sizeable number of people who went on to become prominent Canadian politicians, scientists, business leaders, artists and writers, as well as various memorable oddballs. Two short-term Canadian prime ministers, Liberal John Turner, and Conservative Kim Campbell (who contributes a foreword to the book) are among the prominent politicians who studied at UBC, as did Liberal cabinet member Ron Basford, Conservative cabinet minister and Senator Pat Carney, scientist and provincial education minister Pat McGeer, and such New Democrats as Vancouver mayor and B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, and MP Svend Robinson. Although radical political figures are usually associated with the 1960s, in fact Bruce Yorke started a “progressive” campus discussion club in 1943 in the midst of World War II (he later went on to be a housing activist and Vancouver city councillor for the left-wing Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) party). Harry Rankin, an even more prominent leftist, turned up at UBC’s law school by the end of the decade, and subsequently also served on Vancouver’s city council for an extended, and frequently heroic, tour of political duty.
The other crucial UBC student institution, in addition to the AMS, was the campus newspaper, the Ubyssey, which, in the days before journalism schools and creative writing programs, provided apprenticeships in writing, journalism, and the visual arts. Pierre Berton, Lister Sinclair, Eric Nicol, Alan Fotheringham, Joe Schlesinger, and Vaughn Palmer are part of a long roster of well-known media people who cut their writing teeth at the paper.
Visual artists, ranging from cartoonist Bob Krieger (later, the Province newspaper’s chief editorial caricaturist) to avant-garde photographic artist Jeff Wall, also turned up in the Ubyssey’s pages. As well, the campus produced filmmakers like Larry Kent and figures such as Dan McLeod (who made his mark as editor-publisher of the Georgia Straight newspaper). The early 1960s saw the birth of a circle of poets who founded and contributed to Tish magazine, the most prominent of whom were George Bowering, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt, Frank Davey, Jamie Reid, and Lionel Kearns, and several of them eventually acquired national reputations. As well, editors of the Ubyssey almost invariably found places as reporters and columnists in mainstream media publications across Canada.
Thousands of UBC alumni, I would think, will find this chronicle of “School days, school days / Dear old Golden Rule days” both entertaining and instructive. From the engineering students’ notorious pranks to the political debates of respective eras, Goldfarb’s version of a century of educational development, as seen from the student perspective, ought to be welcome, satisfying nostalgic yearnings as well as offering historical information with minimal pretension.
One of my obvious reasons for paying some attention to what is, in effect, a 100-year school yearbook, is because I have a stake in the story. I’m a UBC alumnus (B.A. ’69, M.A. ’72); I was a student leader at the otherwise bucolic Point Grey campus in the midst of the 1968 international student movement (a little revolt whose 50th anniversary is being marked this year); and I’m, immodestly speaking, both a winner of the Great Trekker award (or, at least I think so, on the basis of a vague memory of a Ubyssey photo in which I’m holding the trophy) and a prominent character in Sheldon Goldfarb’s tale of student life. (I should gratefully note that author Goldfarb treats me with considerable kindness, as your affable next-door-neighbour revolutionary.) In the last pages of his book, while recounting a recent administrative upheaval at UBC in 2015 — its centennial year — at one point, as the AMS student council calls for “stability” in the midst of the latest crisis, Goldfarb wonders aloud, “Stability? What would Stan Persky think?” That’s a question that deserves an answer.
I arrived as a student at UBC in 1966, in my mid-twenties, having come to Vancouver from San Francisco’s “New American Poetry” scene with my partner at the time, poet Robin Blaser, who had been named to an English department professorship at the recently-founded Simon Fraser University in nearby suburban Burnaby. I had previously served a four-year tour in the U.S. Navy, worked in warehouses, on the docks, and as a bartender in North Beach bars in San Francisco, and taken a few literature courses at San Francisco State College from a first-rate professor named Wilder Bentley, who guided me through the homoerotic poetry of Walt Whitman. Most important, I’d become an informal member of a poetry circle centred around Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, the aforementioned Blaser, and George Stanley. Since they were part of what was known as the New American Poetry movement, I also got to know other poets associated with it, such as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and John Ashbery.
My overt political experience was pretty limited. While many of the San Francisco poets tended toward a somewhat whimsical anarchism, I was more attracted by the activism of Allen Ginsberg, who was, at once, the first (and perhaps only) public homosexual in America, and an artist explicitly opposed to the “Moloch” of U.S. capitalism and imperialism. In fact, one of my first conscious political adventures was tagging along with Ginsberg to a coordinating meeting in nearby Berkeley that was organizing one of the early anti-Vietnam War marches. The protest was being threatened by “patriotic” Hell’s Angels motorcycle thugs, so Ginsberg went off to spend an LSD-ingesting evening with them, and they ended up agreeing to supply vroom-vroom security for the marchers rather than attacking us.
In Vancouver, I was one among many young writers, and gravitated toward the poets and other writers associated with Tish magazine, especially Bowering, Fred Wah, Jamie Reid and Gladys Hindmarch. Although Goldfarb doesn’t underscore this in his text, “the Sixties” in Vancouver probably began, at least intellectually ,when an American-born UBC English professor, Warren Tallman, organized the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, a sort of rolling summer series of literary workshops, seminars, readings and house-parties that brought together the likes of Ginsberg, Olson, Creeley, Levertov, and renowned Canadian poet Margaret Avison with the young Vancouver “acolytes” (as the “elderly” then-44-year-old Robert Duncan referred to the Tish crowd). It was among the poets, “the antennae of the race” (as Ezra Pound dubbed them) that the ideas marking a new era of politics and culture presciently circulated. In the “Human Universe” and “Projective Verse” essays of Charles Olson, he urged poets to understand the history, geography and economic specifics of “the local,” while linking that knowledge, in a cosmopolitan way, to the myths and history of the world.
By the time of my arrival in the mid-60s, the social circuumstances in Vancouver (and elsewhere across North America) had been considerably politicized and counter-acculturated (think of everything from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Vancouver’s Tom Northcott singing a cover of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street” … followed by … and here comes everybody). My first mostly unwitting political action at UBC was an overnight tent-in in 1966 on the lawns of the university’s Main Mall to protest a shortage of student housing facilities.
My motives were admittedly slightly mixed. Even though I was more than adequately housed, but sincerely believed it was a citizen’s job to stand up for those who weren’t, it was also the case that my sleep-in on the grounds of UBC also had just a little something to do with my prospective tentmate, a fellow student with whom I was in the midst of a mutual romantic affair. (Blaser and I, by the way, had a fairly “open” relationship, living together until 1968, when we went our separate ways, but continued being friends for another almost half-century, until his death in 2009.) Okay, enough biographical gossip.
Before I get to the point – which is, What was the “Sixties” all about? – something needs to be said about the content of “student life.” Goldfarb mentions this recurrently in passing, but is understandably focused on campus events, student council politics, and the Ubyssey’s running commentary on all of this. But what student life is mostly about, if you’re lucky, is being in classrooms with older people known as profs, who know a lot about Jonathan Swift, or differential equations, or the life cycles of fruit flies (I’m thinking of, respectively, then UBC professors Phil Pinkus, Walter Gage and David Suzuki).
The first lesson of student life is that university is about teachers and what they’re teaching (despite all the current hollow rhetoric about “student-centred learning”), and the next lesson is learning to pick good ones. I had a head start in acquiring this crucial skill/intuition, thanks to the accident of having had a remarkable father in my life (I didn’t realize quite how remarkable he was until much later), who taught me to read, deftly guided my education, and determinedly protected my freedom at every turn of potential unreasonable restraint. When I decided, as a 17-year-old in my hometown of Chicago, that I preferred to “go to sea” rather than the available University of Chicago, he settled whatever family grumblings there might be with the offhand remark, “It’s what he wants to do.” In San Francisco, I had easily found mentors like Jack Spicer, Blaser, and Ginsberg.
The first thing that happened to me at UBC was that I walked into a lecture hall in what was then the geography building for an 8:30 a.m. anthropology class with someone named J. Michael Kew. It was one of those early morning classes during the rainy season, the creaky wooden amphitheatre smelled of damp woollen overclothes, and most of the students were there simply for the “credits.” Many of them were bored by Professor Kew’s pre-dawn lectures about the lives of local and far-away aboriginal people, whereas I heard someone who spoke in beautifully crafted, intelligent sentences about how life on earth was structured through kin and territory — sentences that I thought were worth taking down almost verbatim in my school notebook through a rainy Vancouver autumn.
In due course I wrote a paper about something called the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” – the early 20th century idea of two linguistic anthropologists who thought that the language of the Hopi people in the southwest U.S. incorporated, or perhaps shaped, a different sense of time and reality than other languages – they were probably wrong, but it was a stimulating idea. After reading my essay, Kew mentioned to me that since I was interested in language, there was a sociologist at school who was looking for a student research assistant and that I might be interested in applying for the job.
That’s how I met RoyTurner, an English-born sociologist with an extensive philosophical background who was working in a new area of language-based urban ethnography known as “ethnomethodology.” Turner, an impressively well-read and elegantly civilized teacher, made use of the linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the sociolgical phenomenology of Alfred Schutz, as well as the “everyday” sociology of figures like Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel, to hone in on “ordinary” human practices that revealed something about how we constructed life’s meanings. In addition to taking classes with Turner, I was soon doing research at theVancouver Coroner’s Office, and that eventually led to writing a thesis called “How the Other Half Dies,” since the city morgue turned out to be an institution that handled the often messy business of dealing with those people in society (usually impoverished) who had no one to look after them in death.
Even as I was having a great time getting “edumacated,” I was already involved in student and other politics, which led to my next mentor at UBC. Since I was publicly arguing about how we should live our lives together (you can take the foregoing phrase as a thumbnail definition of “politics”), various fellow students insisted that I had to attend the political philosophy class of a well-known prof on campus. That’s how I met Bob Rowan (and eventually his own teacher, University of California, Berkeley, philosopher Joseph Tussman, the author of Obligation and the Body Politic). I also got to know several classmates who turned into lifetime friends (among them, the future prominent civil libertarian, John Dixon), since Rowan’s classes were a magnet for many of the brightest young people on campus.
Soon I was vigorously arguing about Plato’s Republic (getting it mostly wrong) with the unflappable Rowan, who stood patiently by the classroom windows toying with the blinds, or with one foot on the radiator picking an imaginary bit of lint off his trousers. Rowan was one of the founders of a general education program at UBC called Arts One, and an activist figure in the recently founded B.C. Civil Liberties Association (both of which have something considerable to do with the “sixties”). Rowan demonstrated how to simultaneously study classic philosophical texts (we were soon on to Hobbes and Rousseau) and at the same time to relate them to the very rallies, demos, and “teach-ins” I was often organizing on campus and in the city. Rowan embodied one of the key then-contemporary concepts about education, namely “relevance,” and argued for the centrality of civic education to democratic society.
Which brings us from the popular 1907 song that begins “School days, school days / Good old Golden Rule Days” to Chuck Berry’s revved-up 1960s version that started out, “Up in the mornin’ and out to school / The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule” and wound up, “Hail hail rock ‘n’ roll / … The feelin’ is there body and soul.” The Sixties might be described as a rare and remarkable time of practical experiments in utopian thinking. Although there was plenty of emblematic rock and roll, drugs, and sex, the reason for citing some of the aspects of my education (above) is to underscore the often forgotten fact that we were a literate generation.
I took to student politics like the proverbial duck to water (although it’s useful to remember that “if it quacks like a duck…” it’s not always a duck; sometimes it’s just a “quack”). I brought with me (again, mostly unwittingly) the populist leftist style and ideas of the American version of the international New Left. I soon turned up in the student cafeteria (in the basement of the Auditorium, located adjacent to the old Administration Building), climbed up on a table, accompanied by a garage band of guitarists, banjo players and tamborines, and cried out, “Listen to me, just for a minute,” as I began my campaign harangue for a succession of offices — from Arts Students’ president, AMS posts, and eventually graduate students’ leader and Academic Senate representative.
The style of this new kind of politicking was in sharp contrast to traditional student campaigning. When I arrived at UBC, it was still a visibly social class-based elitist university. Despite the post-World War II incipient “democratization” of universities, even by the mid-60s, less than 10 per cent of the province’s 18-24 year olds were enrolled in post-secondary education (a number that’s increased to over 30 per cent a half-century later). The campus politicos were boys in blue blazers bearing the gold-threaded university crest, and a typical student “campaign” featured campus Liberal Club types riding up and down the Main Mall roads in a “caravan” of convertibles.
It’s important to note, moreover, that there was more to the new politics than a band of wandering troubadours. As noted, we were literate. We had, for starters, Tom Hayden’s extensive “Port Huron Statement,” his 1962 manifesto about civil rights, peace, and democracy, written for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). (Hayden, one of the protagonists of the 1968 “Chicago 8” trial, would go on to be a successful California politician). As well, we had available a raft of contemporary thinkers, like Paul Goodman, author of Growing Up Absurd or Critical Theory philosopher Herbert Marcuse and his Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man, plus a smattering of Marxist “classics.” Even while we were moving on in Bob Rowan’s class from the Republic to Plato’s Crito, Apology, Phaedo and The Symposium, I was simultaneously ploughing through Rosa Luxemburg (1966), scholar J. P. Nettl’s two-volume biography of the early 20th century revolutionary and theorist.
Although this invasion of brash Americans on to Canadian university campuses was often enough patronising and insensitive (a Canadian “nationalist” backlash to the incursion developed in the following decade), one of the other uses to which I put my literacy skills was to find out as much as I could about where I was. Following the advice of poet Charles Olson about understanding the local in non-parochial ways, I read the journals of the explorers and settlers of this “unceded” (as we say today) aboriginal territory – George Vancouver, Simon Fraser, David Thompson and many of the others – as well as the Canadian historians of the day, Donald Creighton and Stanley Ryerson. I also began to locate myself within the broad political spectrum available on campus.
Goldfarb recounts the controversary at UBC in the 1930s over whether Tim Buck, the leader of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), would be allowed to speak at the university (in the end, he was), but by the ‘60s, the Commies were generally viewed as an antiquated option, primarily because the Canadian party was tethered to the moribund politics of the Soviet Union (USSR). But apart from being weighed down by the legacy of Stalinism, what I discovered when I met them was that the local Communists – particularly influential in the powerful provincial trade union movement, among fishermen, carpenters, electricians and otthers – were admirable among politically active people. They were hard workers, in for the long haul, and knowledgeable about politics and life in ways that others weren’t. Despite their sentimental attachment to the USSR, they had a lot to teach us younger activists (lessons that, for the most part, alas, we were in too much of a hurry to learn).
If the Soviet-influenced local Communists were Old Left (and old hat), younger activists were swept up in enthusiasms for newer “Third World” revolutionary brands, such as Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba and of course Ho Chi Minh’s embattled Vietnam – most of which we badly misunderstood. The intellectually most interesting Marxists, I thought, were the followers of Stalin’s opponent, Leon Trotsky, especially the Trotskyists in England grouped around the New Left Review magazine, which provided astute redactions of the latest European leftist political theorists. Although the Trotskyists weren’t especially prominent at a campus like UBC, in Vancouver one notable figure from the League for Socialist Action (LSA, as I think the local Trotskyist organization was known), Maurice Flood, founded the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE), one of the city’s earliest gay rights organizations.
Among the left-of-the-CPC groups in nascent development was a UBC campus discussion group, the Internationalists, led by a microbiology graduate student from India, Hardial Baines. Eventually, the group evolved into the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), one of the strangest cult-like groups produced by the Canadian left during that era. Billed as “anti-revisionist” leftists (i.e., they were against the Soviet “revisionism” that denounced the Terror of Stalinism), the group featured “cult of personality” leadership worship, vastly inflated self-importance, endless internal purges in the name of greater purity, and they were not above a little bit of inter-group violence, and much turgid sloganeering (“Blood debts will be paid in blood,” and “Fascists have no right to speak,” among them). After rejecting most other Marxist regimes, they ended up supporting the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha’s Albania (a political formation that, as I discovered when I had occasion to visit Albania in the 1990s, was as pathological as the (fortunately) much less powerful CPC-ML itself).
In due course, other “Marxist-Leninist” “party-building formations” developed in Canada, most of them not as chillingly zany as the CPC-ML , but all of them equally unsuccessful in making much of a mark on Canadian politics. The reason for mentioning them even in passing here is because, while it was easy to dismiss right-leaning cults (whether organized around UFOs, fundamentalist religions, or other conspiracy theories), it was considerably more disturbing to disagree with people who at once shared many of my own views about politics and history, and whom I simultaneously regarded as pathological. If nothing else, the funhouse mirror presence of such figures ought to inspire a bit of modesty and irony in professing whatever political views at which one arrives.
Finally, in the panoply of available political positions, there were anarchists of one sort and another, ranging from labour syndicalists to right wing anarcho-libertarians. Anarchism, too, had historical roots in British Columbia, particularly ties to early 20th century mine workers in the eastern part of the province, who were often part of the continental International Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”). I was, oddly enough, despite my amiable temperament, little attracted to anarchism: while its across-the-board social liberalism (including advocacy for freedom of speech) made sense, the absence of a sustainable concept of legitimate political authority (other than oneself) and its exaggerated individualism seemed to me unworkable in the large democratic societies in which we were citizens. Finally, anarchism’s bomb-throwing history of violence was off-putting.
I tended to prefer the workaday pragmatism of social democrats and older leftists. The New Democratic Party (NDP) would never make a Revolution, but they wouldn’t unleash a Terror either. However, the common garden-variety campus anarchists fitted in easily with the hippie counter-culture, populist leftism, and “life-style” trends that made up much of the amalgam of the student New Left with which I identified. As with pointing to our literacy as an often overlooked feature of the student movement of the 1960s, it’s useful to at least recognize that student politics was neither politically homogenous nor monolithic.
In the most grandiose sense, the Sixties and its student movements represented a willingness to question almost all institutional arrangements and self-conceptions then extent, with the intent of revivifying democratic societies, and (equally grandiosely) not merely to interpret the world, but to change it for the better, to paraphrase an old Marxist shibbolith. In the U.S., much of the focus was understandably on securing the civil rights of African-Americans, a struggle for equality that quickly shaded into similar movements concerning the status of women, gays, and various other sexual and ethnic minorities in modern society.
Its other thematic – all of us having recently survived the 1962 Cuban “missile crisis,” a nuclear weapons stand-off between the Soviet Union and the U.S. – was focussed on a conception of global peace that would avert MAD (nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction). The U.S. war in Vietnam, as an instance of U.S. imperialism at its most senseless, provided the then immediate locus for such a notion of peace. And finally, there was the broad range of concerns about education, teaching, and life on campus. The images and metaphors generated by that part of the struggle had to do with resisting the university being turned into a mere factory – a well-known University of California student leader, Mario Savio, conjured up the image of protestors throwing themselves upon the cogs and gears of the machine and making it grind to a halt, while ensuring that the people directly affected by institutions got to participate in its decisions.
Student politics at UBC offered a local variation on all the above themes and its cultural accompaniments. As elsewhere in North America, there was a “town and gown” aspect to issues often generated on campus. In Vancouver, for example, there was a mayor, Tom (“Terrific”) Campbell, irrationally incensed at “hippies,” especially a group of young people from Quebec and points east spending the summer on the west coast, and gathering on the steps of the old courthouse building in Courthouse Square on Georgia Street. According to the mayor, they were disturbing the lives of “decent people” (actually, they were only disturbing downtown office workers who also liked to gather on the courthouse steps and eat their brownbag lunches).
Just as the hippie-obsessed mayor decided to arrest the young visitors for the crime of “loitering,” I happened to be doing some volunteer teaching at a downtown “free school” for unconventional kids (my prize pupil, ironically, eventually became the head of UBC’s Fine Arts department). Naturally, with the pending arrival of the police, I took my free school class over to the square to deliver an in-situ lecture about the Hudson Bay Company and Imperialism in Canada (the local branch of the Hudson Bay department store was located kitty-corner just across the street from the square). The industrious constabulary quickly identified the source of the trouble and I was arrested and transported in a paddy wagon with various other people (most of whom, being underaged, were soon released) to the city lock-up at 222 Main St. I was temporarily housed in a cell as I was being “processed,” while downstairs, outside the city jail, a band of civil libertarians, including my prof Bob Rowan, were marching in protest.
I’ll skip some of the finer details. Eventually, I went to trial (the other cases were “stayed”) and was sentenced to pay a “peace bond,” promising not to disturb the lives of “decent people.” Insisting that I was already “keeping the peace,” I temporarily declined to pay the bond, and the local magistrate shipped me off to the provincial jail, Oakalla, where I proposed to conduct a Blue Ribbon Panel on prison conditions. The recently-founded alternative newspaper, Dan McLeod’s Georgia Straight (of which I was one of several co-founders and a contributing writer), said some unpleasant things about the judge in my case, and the paper was promptly charged with “criminal libel.” While I was gathering material in my cell, the local star radio DJ, Terry David Mulligan, dedicated a song to me that tinnily came through the receiver in the jailhouse wall. That convinced me to agree to the peace bond and thus release myself. (Lesson Number One in politics: know when to declare victory, and don’t become a boring public pest.)
In the end: the Georgia Straight was fined $3,000 dollars for uttering the unpleasant truth; but we soon organized a benefit concert with poet Allen Ginsberg and singer Phil Ochs to raise money to pay off the fine. The various alternative publications and institutions (free schools, the “Kool-Aid” medical services for overdoses and other enthusiasms, and various household “communes”) banded together under the rubric of the “Acting City Government,” informally presided over by the Town Fool, a motley-outfitted theology student from UBC named Joachim Foikas, perhaps the most delightful oddball the university ever provided a home for. Oh, and the loitering law. Eventually, more constitutionally-minded times arrived, and pro bono lawyers went to higher courts, which found the crime of loitering unconstitutional, declaring it null and void.
On campus, although we weren’t spurred by the American civil rights movement (whose roots could be traced back to the still unresolved U.S. Civil War, and which remains a crucial source of today’s political “polarization” there), we nonetheless evinced some dim recognition of our own inequalities in Canada, such as the condition of aboriginal people in B.C. Soon enough, we were enmeshed in other gender, ethnic, racial, and sexual politics. Our agenda encompassed everything from the beginnings of modern environmentalism to group therapy to overthrowing capitalism (or from Greenpeace to gestalt therapist Fritz Perls to a pipedream of revolution).
I think, of all the changes, partial successes and outright failures (e.g., overthrowing capitalism) that we experienced, the most significant social development launched in the 60s was the modern women’s movement. A half-century after its inception, it’s difficult for those of the current generation to have much of an idea of what it was like to be a woman in the mid-20th century (although the contemporary “Me, Too” movement provides a glimmer of what it was like to be so disempowered as to not even be able to recognize that you were disempowered). The women’s movement transformed the status of a gender with minimal help from even its putative allies. Although all of us were quick to point out the blatant sexism of the red-jacketed UBC engineering students (who paraded a naked women aboard a horse across campus in the annual Lady Godiva ride), the sexism of leftist males was as pervasive and resistant to change as that of less sophisticated student hordes. Even today, the status of women has a considerable ways to go to achieve genuine social equality, or to coin a phrase, a Women’s Movement’s work is never done.
Interestingly enough, despite the obvious accomplishments of the 1960s — from such things as the women’s movement noted above, to modern ecological thought and action, gay “liberation,” the reform of education and a host of proposed social transformations, as well as the fervent debate that went along with the proposals — ever since the end of the tumultuous era (it actually didn’t end until about 1975), political conservatives have been decrying the devilish decade as the ur-spring of all that is evil, decadent and shallow in the present world. There is, of course, much to criticize about the 60s movement, but the level of vitupation, even a half-century later, is remarkable.
Just the other day, courtesy of a Facebook “friend” who had provided a link, I found myself reading an essay in the right-wing, Rupert Murdoch-owned, Donald Trump-supporting New York Post in which I was told that 1968 was marked by an “inward turn” “away from politics per se. It was a turn away from res publica toward a soft and vulgar hedonism –a social, sexual and spiritual retreat enabled by new possibilities in entertainment and technology.” The article goes on to recite every cliché available about the narcissim and “childish self-absorbtion” of a generation that fostered America’s “retreat from civic life.” (Kevin Williamson, “1968 marked Americans’ retreat from civic life,” New York Post, July 21, 2018.)
Equally interesting, the screed doesn’t really mention that the 60s was born in the black civil rights movement of the 1950s that eventuated (in the U.S.) in the next decade’s Great Society programs, marked by the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, and much else. Instead, from the blinkered pages of the unreliable Post, we find out that “Americans were exhausted – and disappointed – by the long run of political radicalism that ran in spurts from the New Deal to the Great Society.” The piece peddles a childish parody of history, but it’s not atypical of the conservative response to the 1960s. Apparently, some reactionaries, then and now, got a glimpse not of the playful Town Fool but of the Devil himself, and have never gotten over it.
Finally, there’s one last topic from the 1960s that requires discussion – namely, p0st-secondary education itself. As it turned out, not entirely by accident, I ended up as a university professor myself, teaching for four decades. But I didn’t become a teacher at a gigantic research university like UBC. An early 1960sUBC president, John B. Macdonald, was asked by the provincial government of the day to prepare a report with suggestions about the future of post-secondary education, given the burgeoning demand for it in a society in one of its most affluent and class-mobile phases. At the heart of Macdonald’s proposed scheme was a set of regionally-located free standing undergraduate institutions. The plan generated considerable student enthusiam, as Goldfarb reports in his book, and there was even a little “Back Mac” campaign featuring a mini-Great Trek march, and a legislature sympathetic to some version of the regional college model.
One Friday afternoon in 1975, while at work (at CBC radio, as a story editor) I got a call from an old friend, Leonard Minsky, who, unbeknowst to me, had beeen hired by the social democratic provincial government of the day to organize one of the new far-flung regional colleges that Premier Dave Barrett’s NDP was establishing. “How would you like to teach?” Minsky asked. “Where are you calling from, Leonard?” I asked. “Terrace, B.C.,” he said. “Where’s that?” I asked. It was a small town in northwestern B.C., it turned out, somewhere between Prince Rupert and Prince George, a thousand kilometers north, not as the crow flies, but as the road winds along the great Skeena River. “Teach what?” “Anything you want,” Minsky amiably replied. “Look, hop on a plane and come up here for the weekend and I’ll explain it all to you.”
For the next several years, I taught at Northwest College in Terrace (and stops along the highway from Prince Rupert to Kitimat to Hazelton to Smithers), and for the succeeding decades, I worked at Capilano College (a modest arts and sciences college in North Vancouver, B.C., which eventually was turned into a less-modest university increasingly teaching “business”). For an entire professorial career I worked in an educational paradise, an instructional Shangri-la.
In all the classes I taught (in sociology, anthropology, political science, aboriginal studies, labour studies, and philosophy) there were never more than 35 students in a room. That meant I knew their names, that I had some idea of their lives, that I marked their essays myself, and that I had lots of time to have conversations with them. I adopted a style of teaching I learned from my philosophy teacher Bob Rowan and my friend John Dixon (who was my colleague in the philosophy department at Capilano), which is known (perhaps a bit self-inflatedly) as the “Socratic method.” I seldom delivered full-fledged lectures, but mostly engaged in classroom discussion that was largely shaped by what was on students’ minds, although of course we also had “texts” and “course outlines” and the rest of academic paraphernalia, and I also learned that – with respect to philosophy, say – there really was such a thing as a “discipline,” and teaching was not just a matter of winging it. The so-called Socratic approach is not the only way to do good teaching, but it’s one of many ways (I’m a devout pluralist when it comes to these matters of “delivery”). If you’re inclined toward it, it’s a challenge that resembles walking on a tightrope (on some days over a shark tank, and on others, among passive trays of glazed donuts) – in any case, a pedagogical adventure.
I mention all this because the organization of teaching, and teaching itself, at UBC and similar universities – then and now (with a few notable exceptions) — is the complete opposite of what I’m describing above, and all our efforts to seriously reform (especially) undergraduate education was a total failure.
Then and now, at most North American universities, teaching is organized around mass lectures –hundreds of students assembled in an amphitheater listening (or not) to a professor lecturing from down in the well, armed with a Power Point device and screens above, and the whole thing is geared toward “mid-term” and “final” exams. In fact, in recent decades, the situation has gotten only worse, with professors disappearing (into their research and grad student seminars), so that now most undergraduate teaching (the last figure I saw was over 70 per cent) is done by “sessional” lecturers, “adjunct” profs, and TAs (teaching assistants). As the university becomes increasingly “corporatized” this all makes economic sense, maximizing student “units” per class and utilizing underpaid instructors who enjoy no professional benefits and have little organic connection to the institution.
The students, thanks to new technologies, are disappearing too, though they still may show up in the flesh. If you visit a contemporary mass lecture, what you find is a semi-darkened amphitheatre with glowing electronic devices plerched on desks before each student, and the students, while half-listening to the lecture, are busy looking at internet entertainments, sending messages to friends, doing some last-minute online shopping and, who knows, maybe even watching porn or “taking notes.” Frequently, note-taking is reduced to photographing the Power Point slides with one’s smartphone. Given the available technology, it’s economically more “viable” to simply transmit the lectures to students at home or in the dorms. (And I haven’t yet said anything about the “content” of education!) At the hollowed-out corporate university, all that remains is an ever-growing administration, an increased corps of “counsellors” to deal with student PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and often enough, commercial enterprises and housing projects occupying the shrinking green lawns that once emblemized college campuses.
In his Hundred-Year Trek, Goldfarb reports on sporadic efforts to discuss education. As early in the decade as 1961, he notes, “Teaching methods were in the air: the Ubyssey ran articles about how discussions would be better than lectures, and complained about professors who read the same lecture notes year after year.” By 1966, Goldfarb writes, student activists were saying “the whole nature of the university had to change… Curriculum should be made more relevant and less lecture-oriented; the aim should be true education, not a meal ticket.” What’s more, the university should be democratized, with student representation at every level. And so should the rest of society, the putative revolutionaries mused… but let’s save that for another, brighter day.
An alternative answer to the question of, “Education for what?” (the title of one B.C. government discussion paper), can be briefly stated: the first two-years of undergraduate university education, before students go on to the broad “major” subjects in upper division, or to the specializations of graduate schools, should be devoted to a general humanities-oriented education focused on citizenship, democracy and life itself. The half-century-old UBC Arts One model offers a version of this, but it’s never developed beyond a “boutique” option for self-selected students. The mass lecture ought to give way to the small-class model I described above, and probably the whole undergraduate enterprise (if there has to be such at big research universities) ought to be organized as a set of small colleges that really are “student-centered.” In short, university should be for fostering well-rounded citizenly minds and not merely for job-training. (At least, to conclude a response to Goldfarb’s question, that’s what Stan Persky thinks.)
Near the end of The Hundred Year Trek, in the centennial 2015 chapter, Goldfarb records that the students opened the new Student Union Building, called The Nest, replacing the old one from the 1960s. Students also demonstrated in support of the pro-democracy “umbrella”movement in Hong Kong, against tuition fee increases, and for and against the notion of the worldwide BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign against Israel. Further, the UBC President of the day suddenly resigned under mysterious circumstances (that never were explained) and the head of the Creative Writing Department was fired amid unsubstantiated rumours of sexual assault (in the end, an arbitrator awarded the fired prof some $170,000 for wrongful defamation by the university– and once more, the administration failed to adequately explain what had happened.) Presumably, old radicals from the ‘60s wheeled onto campus would serenely observe all this, and think, Gee, it looks pretty normal – upheaval and protest. They would also see a lot of 21st century students playing video games and watching Game of Thrones on streamed electronic devices. That’s fairly normal, too. In the 60s, many students had moved on from the Great Trek only to Star Trek.
The elderly visiting alumni would no doubt think of the school’s Latin motto: “Tuum est.” The phrase has always oscillated between two translations. One of them is “It is yours,” and a lot of upper-class students over the years read it as a promise that the world belonged to them. The other translation is “It’s up to you,” and a generation of students a half-century ago took it as an invitaton to try what the philosopher John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living.”