by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Jay Schalin of the Martin Center reminds readers of an important warning issued in the 1960s.
One of the more notorious campus incidents occurred at Columbia University in 1968. A coalition of student radicals and African American activists took over the president’s office and held a dean hostage to protest the planned building of a new gym in the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding the school. The protest shook the tranquil, insulated Ivy League school to its core.
That year’s graduation ceremonies provided an opportunity for reflection and reconciliation. Historian Richard Hofstadter was selected to give the commencement address. Hofstadter was one of many star academics who taught at Columbia then, along with philosopher Sidney Hook, poet Mark van Doren, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and literary critics Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. But Hofstadter may have been more qualified than the others to give the 1968 address, as he was one of America’s leading authorities on the history of academia.
His 1955 book, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, co-authored with his Columbia colleague Walter Metzger, is one of the first sources researchers should access to understand not just the evolution of academic freedom, but the history of American academia in general.
Hofstadter had been a Communist Party member in his early career, but gradually shifted his political beliefs to more standard mid-20th century liberalism. The commencement address signified an even greater departure from his leftist past; he saw in the student protests the very sort of “anti-intellectualism” for which he had often criticized the political right. The address is now regarded by many as essential reading for scholars of academic history. It was, in large part, a warning about politicizing the university. …
… He regarded the central defining principle of a university to be its devotion “to inquiry…it exists so that its members may inquire into truths of all sorts.”