Instructor: Ted Widmer
Thursdays, 10:00 AM – 12:40 PM
Macaulay Classroom 2 (204)
Course Code: MHC 368
This class will look at a single year, 1968, to meditate on social justice and all of the ways in which societies try to change when confronted by evidence that old assumptions are no longer working. Can we see distant ancestors of recent protests (Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and electoral dysfunction) in the problems of another era?
Reading a wide variety of texts, from historians, journalists, political leaders and grass-roots participants, we will try to answer that question. We will consider many situations around the world, including the student movements in Paris and Prague, but we will also pay close attention to the United States and to the rapidly-shifting dynamic in New York City, where students nearly paralyzed Columbia University and the city teetered from one crisis to another in a year of constant unrest.
Why was 1968 so divisive? The Vietnam War was at its peak, but narratives of “victory” were growing stale, and turning American politics upside down. A sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, refused to run again, throwing the race wide open. Two former allies of his, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, had become increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the war, but they were each gunned down in a year that grew increasingly violent as conventional politics failed
Cities were particularly divided, and New York was no exception. Despite a progressive young mayor, John Lindsay, many protesters demonstrated through a long spring and summer of anguish. At the top of the list was Vietnam, but others were simply angry at the complacency of a wealth society that had marginalized too many for too long. In addition to the civil rights movement (beginning to splinter in the wake of King’s death), women’s groups, indigenous groups, and environmental activists were demanding to be heard. On the right, as well, vocal critics were forging new coalitions, and proving to be surprisingly adaptive. The election of a Republican, Richard Nixon, shocked the left and showed just how limited their idea of “revolution” had become.
But even if 1968 was violent and divisive, there were also glimpses of promise, and tremendous cultural breakthroughs in every category from music to film to theater. New York, as usual, was at the center of it all. With eyes wide open, we will try to bring back some of the highlights of a pivotal year that in many ways has never ended.