Academic journal article History of Education Review

Student Activists at Sydney University 1960-1967: A Problem of Interpretation

Academic journal article History of Education Review

Student Activists at Sydney University 1960-1967: A Problem of Interpretation

Article excerpt

The student revolt of 1967 to 1974, which finally expired about 1978, retains its fascination and much of its significance in the twenty-first century. But the seven or so years which preceded it are often passed over as simply a precursor, the incubation of a subsequent explosion; they deserve a higher status.

The concentration of interest on the late 1960s and early 1970s arises from the driving role of students in the cultural revolution whose traumatic impact still echoes with us. As late as 2005 some commentators saw federal legislation introducing Voluntary Student Unionism as the culmination of struggles in the 1970s when Deputy Prime Minister Costello and Health Minister Abbott battled their radical enemies. Interest in these turbulent years at a popular, non-academic level has produced a succession of nostalgic reminiscences. In the Sydney Morning Herald's 'Good Weekend' for 13 December 2003 Mark Dapin pondered whether the Melbourne Maoists had changed their world views ('Living by the Little Red book'.) In the Sydney University Gazette of October 1995 Andrew West asserted that the campus radicals of the 1960s and '70s had remained true to their basic beliefs ('Not finished fighting'.) Some years later, in April 2003, the editor of that journal invited me to discuss 'Where have all the rebels gone?' My answer treated this as a twofold question: What has happened to the former rebels? Why have the students of today abandoned radicalism?

Very properly, the student revolt's key role in what was in many respects a disastrous turn in western civilisation should ensure its place in academic studies. But the early and mid-1960s, often treated as a prelude, had a distinctive rationale. I myself possibly under-estimated the distinctive features of 1960-67 in my 2002 book on radical students and the old left at Sydney University. Perhaps I was too anxious to reach my terminus, 1967!

The following re-examination considers varying interpretations of the student movement at Sydney from about 1960 to about 1967 advanced by different investigators. A background sketch of the University context then leads on to an analysis of the contribution made by student clubs and by student publications to the revival of activism. This permits some closing generalisations about the interpretation of this period.

A neglected and misunderstood topic

'Rudimentary' was how Donald Beer, a lecturer at the University of New England, categorised the historiography of Australian university student life in the third quarter of the twentieth century. He was writing in 1996. Despite some new work in this field, seven years later Graham Hastings, Education Research Co-ordinator for the National Union of Students, also remarked on the neglect of the history of Australian student activism. Indeed, he said, American student activism was better known. (1)

Beer complained that discussion of student activities was often relegated to an isolated chapter in a broader context. Many writers saw the same motivations governing the whole ten years 1960-1970. Others saw 1960 to 1967 as a unity but characterised it as 'a period of transition in Australian universities generally'. Yet others saw these seven years as bifurcated about 1964-65. The accepted view, then and now, was that Australian universities were quiescent during the 1950s for several reasons: the Cold War discouraged political enthusiasm, undergraduates had become more interested in personal and religious matters, and an inadequate secondary education forced them to concentrate on their studies. Political clubs were out of favour, religious societies flourished. According to Beer, this explains why in the early 1960s most socially-conscious students took a moral rather than directly political view of public life. The most obvious moral issues were racial, though liberal views like opposition to censorship also attracted support.

Hastings does not explain the passivity of 'the silent generation' of the 1950s. …

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