Why Students Rebel
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 8 Feb 1968, p. 285-298
Ross, Dr. Murray G., Speaker
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Hard times for university administrators. The current wave of student protest and what it has provoked. Reaction to student rebellion. The nature of present students. A clarification of the general impression of student revolt, and a look at the varieties of student revolt. Reasons why radical activists are taken seriously on campus. Underlying causes of student rebellion. What it is about our society that most disturbs and antagonizes the student generation. Today's student. The university bearing the brunt of student rebellion, and being capable of "spawning its own rebels." What our response to the unease and disquiet that pervade the campuses of North America should be. The better side and worthiness of student rebellion.
Date of Original
8 Feb 1968
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Why Students Rebel
CHAIRMAN, The President, Graham M. Gore


No doubt everyone here has, at one time or another, heard the charge that universities traditionally turn their gaze inward, purposely maintaining a monastic detachment from surrounding society and much preferring theoretical preoccupation to practical involvement--or words to that effect.

While there has been justification for this view at certain times and places, there have been definite signs that it can no longer be applied in a general way. Today we find the academic community often has its eyes keenly focused on contemporary society and is responding in a constructive way to specific social problems.

York University, here in Metropolitan Toronto, can be taken as a case in point. Incorporated in 1959, York admitted its first students in 1960. In the comparatively short time since then, it has already gained a reputation as a flexible and progressive centre of learning.

Among the developments contributing to this reputation have been its special studies of current social phenomena, its centre for continuing education, its degree programme for part-time students, and its emphasis on an approach to modern liberal knowledge through interdisciplinary study. Such progress can be attributed in no small measure to the leadership of York University's President, Dr. Murray G. Ross, whom we are privileged to welcome as our guest speaker today.

Not only is Dr. Ross a distinguished leader in the academic life of this country, he is an accredited and articulate social scientist who has, with fruitful results, brought specialized insight and broad learning to bear upon many areas of modern society, particularly on varied aspects of man in community.

Books by Dr. Ross include Towards Professional Maturity, Religious Beliefs of Youth, New Understandings of Leadership, Case Histories in Community Organization, and New Universities in the Modern World. His many articles in newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, have dealt with such subjects as "How to Fight Failure in High School" and "Are New Housing Developments Class Ghettos?". He is also the author of a number of pamphlets that include a study of "Education in the U.S.S.R." and a report for UNESCO on the "Theory and Principles of Community Development".

Dr. Ross was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in 1912. He obtained a B.A. in economics and sociology from Acadia University, an M.A. in sociology from the Univer sity of Toronto, a doctorate of education in social psychology from Columbia University, New York, and a doctorate of civil law from Acadia University.

In 1953 he was awarded a UNESCO Fellowship for study in England, France, and Israel. In 1957 he was a Canadian delegate to the Conference on the North At lantic Community, held in Bruges, Belgium. In 1958 he undertook a five-week study of education in the U.S.S.R. and the People's Republic of China.

Before assuming the presidency of York University, Dr. Ross was Vice-President of the University of Toronto where he had previously been a professor. We are proud to say that Dr. Ross is a Member of the Board of Directors of The Empire Club.

Today he is going to speak to us about a problem that exploded into prominence in Berkeley, California, and was given front-page coverage in North American news papers. I refer, of course to rebellion by University students. Since then, there have been further incidents of student rebellion in American and Canadian universities. Furthermore, in addition to the collective, overt kind of rebellion, there has been a quiet, individual kind of rebellion--the kind that results in the "drop-out": the student who loses interest and withdraws from school.

If I may just interject a personal note -those of us who have spent a good many years in the Secondary Schools, and that includes a number of men I see here today; are much aware of this problem and of what School Boards in Metropolitan Toronto are doing through special schools, special programmes, and special services to cope with it.

Society's reaction to student rebellion--and perhaps the reaction of many of us in the school system--has been a mixture of astonishment and annoyance, expressed in such questions as "What's gotten into these kids?" or "What are they after?" or "What are they trying to prove?" We can be sure that our speaker is fully aware of such questions and deeply concerned with the problems that have provoked them. He has, in fact, entitled his address, "Why Students Rebel". It is my pleasure to call upon him at this time. Gentlemen--Dr. Murray G. Ross.


These are hard times for university administrators. They are apt to spend their days in cease= less debate with angry student leaders, reviewing contin gency plans for riot control, or desperately attempting to extricate some hapless recruiter from the basement of the university employment service. They may share the experience of one of my colleagues whose office was literally invaded or, which has become quite a common practice in North American universities, simply be prevented from using their offices at all. Returning home in the evening they could find their front lawns covered with students protesting the dismissal of a faculty member or the raising of residence fees. Not for them the gentle pleasures of quietly perusing Euripides nor even, which is more serious, do they have sufficient time for the exhilarating and vitally significant work of academic planning, and budget preparation, and consideration of senior appointments. In another sense than the physical, the student has forced his way into the university president's office, and he will not be dislodged.

The current wave of student protest has provoked many differing public reactions. Radicals of another age, who may have been inflamed by Sacco and Vanzetti or inspired by the Regina Manifesto, but who have long since ceased to feel the fire in their bellies, have experienced a vicarious thrill at what they have perceived to be the long-awaited movement for the final reconstruction of society. In this delusion they have been assisted by the apostles of student activism. Paul Goodman, for one, has called today's undergraduates "The New Aristocrats -, America's emerging power elite." And the news media have further exaggerated both the numbers of student protesters, the coherency of their programmes and the potency of their leaders. The availability of television cameras and newspaper reporters to cover every outbreak of student dissent has caused many student leaders to stress exhibitionism in their style and strategy, and extremism in their programmes. In consequence of this intensive coverage by the media the general public has been badly misled about the quality and quantity of student protest. In fact, Clark Kerr of the University of California, with some justification, calls this the "exaggerated generation."

The most common reaction to student rebellion is the conservative one, typical of most of the older generation. It is a reaction of disapproval compounded by bewilder ment. The public seem to hold an image of the student activist, or even of the average student, which is generally a sort of mental mélange of leather jackets, waving placards, long greasy hair, LSD and flaming sex, and to which the wholly inappropriate terms of "beatnik" or "hippy" are indiscriminately applied. This distorted image is also, to an extent, the fault of radio, television and the newspapers. Its distortion is the greater because the older generation has failed to grasp the tremendous cultural transformation which the campus has undergone in the last decade and a half. Rebellion and causes of rebellion aside, our present students are far more conscious than their predecessors of the importance of education for themselves and their society. They are also far more likely to be concerned about events beyond the campus, for they have known the television set almost all their lives and it has indelibly impressed them with the immediacy and significance of a bombing raid on Hanoi, a march on Selma in Alabama, or the squalor of a Métis community in Saskatchewan. And norms of student behaviour have changed too. The campus of football heroes, debating teams and Saturday night dances has been transformed into the campus of self-examination, teach-ins, and community projects.

I should like this afternoon to attempt a clarification of the general impression of student revolt for, whatever its shortcomings, it emphasizes in an awkward and fum bling way some of the weaknesses in the contemporary order of things. Some of you may not think I am an entirely legitimate spokesman for student power. I can only say that I have felt the brunt of student activism many times and have occasionally sensed something of the truth of Dr. Johnson's dictum that when a man is about to be executed it concentrates his mind wonderfully. I have recently been concentrating my mind on the current varieties of student revolt and would like to give you some of the results of my thinking.

All the varieties of student rebel--political activists, Bohemians, volunteer social workers--do not together amount to even close to a majority of our undergraduate population. You may then ask why so much attention is paid to them by university presidents like myself. Are they indeed representative of the mainstream of students and can they ever claim to have the whole campus behind them?

Certainly the majority of students do not share all the views of the radicals, or even know and understand them. On several Ontario campuses lately the vanguard of stu dent protest has been stopped in its tracks by open and organized opposition from within the student body. But neither are the student radicals entirely unrepresentative. Most of the time they articulate some of the suppressed and unarticulated notions of the majority of students who may not themselves join in protest activity, either because the social skein holds them a little more tightly than their radical fellows, or because they are antagonized by some of the more blatantly childish tactics of the radicals, or because they think that there are more important things to do at college than wave placards, man picket lines, or enter student politics. But it would be an error of great proportion to assume that the "silent majority" is a collection of deadwood. Generalizations about this particular group of students are difficult but I would guess that it exhibits a greater degree of consciousness about self and about society than has been witnessed before on the campus. In the event of a major crisis, like one of academic freedom, it could be marshalled behind the radicals. What is important is to recognize that there has been a deep and pervasive change in student attitudes. The activists are merely the most obvious manifestation of this change.

There are two reasons why radical activists are taken seriously on the campus. One is their strategy, borrowed from the civil rights movement, of sit-ins and demonstra tions which has caught many administrators, accustomed to quieter times, completely off guard. We have suddenly found we have to reconsider our role and responsibilities with respect to students and sort out our priorities; one such priority we are now intent upon establishing is that law and order will be preserved on campus. The other, and hopefully more significant, reason for whatever success the activists have enjoyed is that we in the faculty and administration of the universities have had to admit the considerable force of many of their arguments. Revolutions are always made by minorities and are usually initiated by small groups of intellectuals. The mere fact that our student activists have constituted a minority is no reason for treating them lightly.

What is it that periodically raises the temperature of a campus to the boiling point in the 1960s? What are the underlying causes of student rebellion -the noisy rebel lion of the placard carrier, the sullen rebellion of the alienated, or the silent rebellion of the many who have not yet committed themselves to open conflict?

My first point must be a paradox. Contrary to some of our common notions of revolt, it is the affluent society which is the breeding ground for student dissent. For the protesters are not themselves the disadvantaged, they are the advantaged, as are most of those who are in the process of gaining a higher education. They are chief beneficiaries of two decades of economic progress since the War and yet if anything their well-being appears to have sharpened the critical gaze they turn on society.

It is not to disparage the quality of their criticism to say that they are the first generation that can afford to be critical. The pressure to earn a living which often served to resolve their parents' problems of conscience, and made it easier to compromise one's principles in the name of survival is not a pressure which they feel. Eric Hoffer, the celebrated San Francisco longshoreman, has said of the student generation: "They haven't raised a blade of grass. They haven't laid a brick." But he neglected to add that, as far as youth are concerned, they haven't missed anything by not doing so. The competitive struggle for affluence holds no challenge for them when they have already achieved a measure of affluence without struggling for it; the customary ways of earning a living are likely to appear rather drab to them in such circumstances. Nor does the enjoyment of affluence excite them for they have known this enjoyment most of their lives; some of them will have travelled farther than their parents before they even get to university. They may actually begin to romanticize poverty because they react negatively to the way their parents have handled their new wealth. In short then, our society has lost its grip on them.

Thus no practical or material concerns stand in the way of face-to-face confrontation with the anomalies, the inconsistencies and the hypocrisies with which past gener ations have borne. Today's students measure our society's practices by its principles; and they find the practices to be woefully wanting. We profess, in our classrooms, our churches and our parliaments and, I confess, in convocation addresses, certain notions of equality and justice and freedom and dignity of the individual and we drum these notions into the heads of our younger generation. Could we not expect they would throw them back at us? The unlikelihood of children from poorer homes going on to university offends their notion of equality. The depraved condition of the Canadian Indian offends their notion of justice. The quality of life in the Spadina slums or in the negro quarter of Halifax offends their notion of the dignity of the individual. They can't muster the enthusiasm and energy of American student reformers because they don't have the impetus provided by Vietnam and widespread and glaring social injustices. Yet, among a certain segment, the reforming instinct is strong. Their complaint is an angry one for the old values, it appears, are being given mere lip service. The older generation talk about love and brotherhood and peace but accept a way of life that seems to repudiate these values. The radical voice is an impatient one which argues that those who warn of complications and see the need for restraint and compromise, simply seek to excuse inaction. It echoes Dante when he said: "the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality."

Apart from the glaring gap between aspiration and actuality it is the general quality and direction of our society which most disturbs and antagonizes the student generation. Under the impetus of an increasingly sophisticated technology every branch and institution of this society is becoming more rationalized, more specialized, more bureaucratized. The large corporation, the computerized government department, the vast multiversity, are indicative of this trend and the consequence of it is a considerable increase in shared attitudes among those who run our major institutions. In the students' eyes, they inhabit the great grey world of a homogeneous bureaucracy where their highly trained minds are focused on highly specialized areas. They are prevented from taking an overview of society by the narrowness of their orientation. Professors, lawyers, businessmen or civil servants, all branches of the meritocracy are driving themselves to become more and more proficient in their specific fields and there is no one left to rescue the human values and ideals which may be going under.

The student is not a primitive Luddite; he is not trying to turn back the clock. But to him the trend to a hyperorganized, highly skilled, technologically based society seems to imply the abandonment of human individuality. It is the narrowness and sterility of this new order which accounts for the old values being lost from view. Its first priorities are efficiency and organization which are not necessarily the first human priorities. Furthermore, it seems to be all-pervasive, which not only makes dissent from it practically and psychologically difficult but also militates against variety and individuality which are essential if we are to continue to live as persons and not as white-coated creatures of the machine. The student agrees with Archibald MacLeish's belief that "slavery begins when men give up the human need to know with the whole heart-to know for themselves." The student is particularly concerned to be recognized as an individual because he has only recently become aware of all his personal and intellectual faculties and has no desire to have them crippled by a sterile conformity. Yet all institutions, all power elites seem to asquiesce in the new and stultifying order. Old radicals thought politics provided a chance to accomplish real social change. Though more students from the mainstream take part in politics than before, the young radicals and activists generally regard orthodox politics with some suspicion. Perhaps their last link with the old politics was with President Kennedy or in Canadian terms with two middle-aged intellectual swingers--Pierre Trudeau and Dalton Camp.

For today's student then, society is definitely out of joint. Furthermore, the traditional avenues of change appear to be clogged by the new all-pervasive bureaucratic culture. There is no one to shake up society if he doesn't do it himself. In the old days students rebelled in order to gain a change of policy or attitude on the part of their elders. Now they rebel in order to win a place in the decision-making process for themselves. They don't want to be excluded or ordered because they think they have a clearer insight and a more lively conscience than their seniors. They want to be able to translate their social ideals into practical positive actions, and they want to do it now, before they themselves are "taken in" by the organized society.

The student's impatience with the role of an anonymous subject, his desire to be treated like an autonomous individual, are reflected in his objections to prefabri cated norms of behaviour. When confronted by rules in a university residence he wants to know the reasons behind the rules, or, more likely, why he himself is not considered capable of governing his own moral life. He is reinforced in this stand by what he quite accurately diagnoses as the insecurity of the older generation. When his elders appear to advocate one code of personal conduct but to live by a rather different one, it becomes clear to the student that he need not consider himself bound by approved standards and that there is probably something seriously wrong with them. The traditional props of social life have crumbled; in particular, the family no longer exerts its former influence on the upbringing and attitudes of its members. If, as suggested earlier, the student shares the values of his parents, he sees his parents and his teachers no longer deeply concerned about translating these values into concrete prescriptions or standards of behaviour. That is another thing which sets apart the current wave of student protest from past incidents of youthful revolt. The old guidelines of behaviour are gone and, in a way quite different from his predecessors, the student stands alone.

Though politicians and parents have certainly felt the force of student activism, it is the universities which have borne its brunt. The student feels particularly at home in, and identifies with, the university not just because of formal affiliation but because it is one institution which has traditionally shared his rebellion against materialism and conformity. Yet now it appears to be becoming just the handmaiden of the new techonology. Its methods, its organization, its curriculum, all seem to be tailored to the requirements of the outside world. When a computerized grade report is the only means the student has of measuring his intellectual progress, when professors cannot be found in their offices because they are away on "task forces" and consulting missions, the student may conclude that the university has abjectly surrendered the job of stirring up and challenging its students and its society and is instead trying to enfold itself in it. As he sees it, the university nowadays is bent solely on producing grist for the economic mill, turning out generation upon generation of dull unimaginative and highly skilled recruits for computerized careers in the lifeless world of the machine and efficiency expert. He views the university as Professor Henry Aiken of Brandeis saw it in a recent lecture which he gave at York University: "an educational monster which devours its young, processing them into a kind of all-purpose compost for refertilizing the great briar patch of the national society."

The university, nevertheless, remains capable of spawning its own rebels. It awakens them to social injustice, develops their sensibilities and emotions, heightens their sense of their own individuality, and when they come to want to exercise these new faculties it is the university which confronts them in all its imperfections. For the student rebel the campus is not a training ground; it is a battleground. It is the first opportunity to put his theories of social action into practice but it is more than that for it has, potentially, a primary role to play in shaping the values and attitudes of society. They demand the right of participation in the government of the university because they believe that only by the involvement of all its members can the university regain its humane values and provide constant witness of those values to the outside world. But they also want this right so that the university can be at very least the scene of serious social experiments and at best a real engine for social change.

One of the reasons we are instantly repelled by the picture of students on picket lines and in mass rallies is that our idea of education is simply not consistent with these activities. We are offended by the notion, which many students enthusiastically support, that the university is a political community, and we find it hard to understand the passions that go into student revolt and the energy devoted to making seemingly niggling points. We have accustomed ourselves to the idea that universities exist for the preservation, propagation and increase of knowledge and for us the technological age, with its sophisticated systems of information retrieval and data processing appears to hold fantastic promise for the carrying out of this role. "That is your biggest mistake", the students are telling us. "Knowledge isn't a community and the university isn't, or shouldn't be, a factory for its production. The real educational experience is the awakening of one's own sense of personality and of one's relations with other people and this comes by participating in the conduct of our moral and political lives and not by the simple absorption of knowledge. The only kind of knowledge that really matters is knowing how to live and our university years should be a preparation for living."

What should be our response to the unease and disquiet that pervade the campuses of North America? In the current language of the student generation we must "keep our cool". I think we can open the most fruitful sort of interchange with the younger generation by taking an attitude that is at once sophisticated, tolerant and critical. We should be challenging the naivety of some of their notions of decentralized decision-making. We should be pointing out to them that eccentricity in dress and behaviour does not really amount to independence. We should remind them that the frequent use of four-letter words does not necessarily reveal creativity nor maturity. At the same time we should admit that they are one of the few segments of society interested in the great religious values of the ages and in genuine social experiment, and that they have held in front of us principles which we have only preached and too often have forgotten how to practise. For this, they deserve our genuine respect. But we are not all wrong any more than they are always in the right. We each have something to say to each other. We can each benefit from each other's views. We must start the long and demanding dialogue that is essential if we are not to succumb to angry extremisms. But let us not be too concerned with neutralizing student rebellion. Its better side is a worthy attempt to build a more human environment for us, and to compensate for the deadening influence of an over-organized society. That is an aspiration and an endeavour in which we should all want to participate.

Thanks of the meeting were expressed by A. J. Langley.

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Why Students Rebel

Hard times for university administrators. The current wave of student protest and what it has provoked. Reaction to student rebellion. The nature of present students. A clarification of the general impression of student revolt, and a look at the varieties of student revolt. Reasons why radical activists are taken seriously on campus. Underlying causes of student rebellion. What it is about our society that most disturbs and antagonizes the student generation. Today's student. The university bearing the brunt of student rebellion, and being capable of "spawning its own rebels." What our response to the unease and disquiet that pervade the campuses of North America should be. The better side and worthiness of student rebellion.