Just how far Hayden’s radical generation has succeeded in this transformative mission was illustrated by a conference panel on the “reorganization of knowledge” at NYU in the decades since the sixties. The academic expertise of the panel’s speakers demonstrated the point: they included professors of women’s and feminist studies, Africana studies and “post-colonial drama,” Asian Pacific studies, and “alternative learning.” All were united in seeing political activism as an important function of their instruction.
Daniel Walkowitz, a former SDS radical and now a professor of “social and cultural analysis” at NYU, enthused that since the sixties a “bottom up” perspective had come to replace the history of “dead white males.” David Moore, a professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, noted that while of course the content of his school’s courses was “progressive,” with students regularly interacting with labor unions and community activist groups, a special feature of the Gallantin school was that it allowed students to form their own majors. One student, Moore said, had majored in “Order in Chaos.”
The extent to which radical ideology had advanced in academia was tellingly if inadvertently illustrated by Carol Sternhell, a feminist writer and an associate professor of journalism at NYU. Sternhell explained that feminism had come a long way since the sixties. When she first became interested in feminist politics as a student, she was driven by the idea “that the fact that I’m a woman shouldn’t limit my opportunities.” But she revealed that decades of feminist theory – including the feminist dogma that gender, rather than a biological fact, is “socially constructed” – had changed the consciousness of her students. Now, she said, her students come to her with a different concern: “The fact that I have a vagina doesn’t mean that I’m a woman.” The audience nodded approvingly.
Not only were none of the professors self-conscious about bringing political activism into the classroom, but they reveled in that goal. Jack Tchen, whose faculty biography describes him as a “facilitator, teacher, historian, curator, re-organizer, and dumpster diver,” admitted frankly that he sees his role as a professor and a political activist as one and the same. To that end, he said, his current focus is on creating a “counter-knowledge” that challenges what he called Americans’ “paranoia” about the rise of China. Tchen’s main concern was about the challenges of cultivating this “counter-knowledge” in a “neoliberal” and “corporatized” university structure.
Despite the seemingly free rein that these professors have to treat their classroom as an extension of their political activities, the common complaint among the academic panel was that even politically inspired fields of study do not go far enough to promote political causes. Julie Reuben, a professor at Harvard’s School of Education, lamented that even fields like Black Studies have become too focused on academic discipline and not enough on political activism. Today’s courses just weren’t doing enough to “disrupt society,” she said. Those wondering why so many of the OWS rank-and-file are unemployed university students might consider the political priorities of their professors.
The professors’ complaints notwithstanding, it’s telling that even a major university like NYU deems it appropriate to sponsor a conference romanticizing a document as radical and destructive as the Port Huron Statement. Contrary to apologists like Hayden, it was never a reformist statement but a reactionary one, dressing up a revival of communist totalitarianism in a cloak of democratic and populist sounding rhetoric. And if the Port Huron Statement is seen as anything other than a sinister artifact of the sixties, it is only because the left-wing activists’ capture of the universities allows them to take seriously what the country rejected long ago.