U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The 1970s and Abrupt Consciousness U-Turns

I just returned from DC where I spent some time in the National Education Association (NEA) Archive. I did a great deal of research in the NEA Archive for my first book, Education and the Cold War, when the NEA housed its own records. At that time, it was mostly a disorganized mess. But since then, the NEA Archive has found a new home at the George Washington University’s Gelman Library, within that library’s International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Labor History Research Center. What a difference trained archivists make! Though plenty of educational historians make use of the NEA Archive, few historians in other sub-fields do, and this is a shame because I find the NEA Archive a treasure trove of cultural, political, and intellectual historical artifacts.

One major insight that this particular visit to the NEA Archive has made clear to me is the rapid shift in consciousness that took place among left and liberal educators in the 1970s. Sure, recent 70s historiography has already made this consciousness u-turn clear to me more generally—especially Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. But to see this shift so clearly in the primary sources makes it more palpable. Let me give an example.

The NEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Division was (and is) sort of the sixties movement arm of the teacher’s union. It published pamphlets and hosted conferences dedicated to themes such as race relations, feminism, ethnic studies, multiculturalism, etc. In the early 1970s, HCR operators spoke in revolutionary terms. They lamented institutional racism and sexism and, sometimes, even capitalism. Sam Ethridge, HCR director for much of the 70s, comes across as someone who genuinely embraced the counterculture, seeking out speakers for conferences that included Paul Goodman, Theodore Roszak, and Jonathan Kozol. Ethridge and other HCR officials spoke about American society in dour terms, as if it were barely redeemable. In this vein, Ethridge wrote some pretty nutty things, such as in a 1972 memo where he hinted that America might try to wipe out the blacks the way Germany did the Jews. But the ability to speak in revolutionary terms bespoke a certain optimism about the power of radical movements. In its combination of optimism about the possibilities of revolution and its pessimism about the United States, the NEA HCR Division almost seemed akin Students for a Democratic Society circa 1969. It even experienced a similar factionalism born of ideological purity. At a 1971 conference on “Implementing Cultural Diversity in Instructional Programs,” members split into several caucuses, each dedicated to its own ethnic identity. In the heat of the conference, NEA member Ché Cuéllar Cisneros shouted: “I am from the Great Racist State of Texas… and I feel castrated and raped by the NEA for not having enough Chicano representation at this conference and on the Association staff…”

Now for the u-turn: factionalism was not a luxury NEA members felt they could sustain by the late 1970s, when they united against the rising “new right.” In 1979, the annual NEA HCR Conference was on the topic of the “Rise of the New Right: Human and Civil Rights in Jeopardy.” In his opening remarks, John Ryor, NEA President, proclaimed that he was “paranoid about today’s public schools, for if there is anything that has increased faster than public expectations of public education it is criticism of that same education. Whether the attack comes from the organized new right or from a general loss of liberal and humane convictions in society—a falling apart of the center of the body politic…” Conference panels dealt with issues related to “neo-Right campaigns,” such as efforts “to reduce school financing through efforts similar to California’s Proposition 13, undercut teacher-school board collective bargaining, undermine affirmative action efforts, continue censorship battles aimed at curriculum as well as books, and threaten teacher privacy.”

By the early 1980s, in a different yet related move, instead of challenging capitalism and institutional racism, the NEA HCR, when not opposing conservatism, spent its time and energy engaging in the shallow multiculturalism that has since marked that particular pedagogical strategy. Here’s a sample from one pamphlet (1982): “As Americans, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate people, for our borders are filled with a precious assortment of cultures, each one contributing to history and seeking appreciate. Each culture has a special glow. A jewel from each sits in every classroom in the nation.”

Given that the span of time between these two conferences is a mere eight years, I find this u-turn remarkable. There’s a great deal that explains this political, intellectual, and educational u-turn, that I won’t get into here. Famously, something similar happened in the previous decade. SDS went from the participatory democrats of the 1962 Port Huron Statement to the violent revolutionaries of the 1969 Days of Rage. Concomitantly, some committed liberals went in the other direction, mostly in reaction to the New Left. While in DC I also spent time in the Norman Podhoretz Papers and the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Papers, both housed at the Library of Congress. Their neoconservative ideological shifts are legendary. Podhoretz’s is particularly striking. Whereas Commentary, the magazine he edited from 1960 to 1995, generally supported the New Left and civil rights movements through much of the early and mid 1960s, by the end of that decade, Podhoretz was having serious second thoughts. For instance, he was almost alone amongst the New York literati in supporting Albert Shanker’s United Federation of Teachers against black community control efforts. I am curious: when did similar massive and rapid u-turns in consciousness take place, in the United States and elsewhere?

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,

    Those 1979 conference opening remarks from Ryor look like they’ll be perfect for your book. Great find!

    I’ve been thinking—and wondering—a lot recently about the rise of “shallow multiculturalism” in educational discourse, broadly speaking. The serious side is rooted, of course, in the rise of ethnic studies at the university level in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But it appears to be only a mid-to-late 1970s phenomenon in education programs (despite the 1971 marker NEA conference you cite above). Even so, it quickly moved from rising to entrenched by the early 1980s. Is this a fair chronology? I ask because I don’t really detect anti-multiculturalism—which is the sure sign of ideological entrenchment—until the early-to-mid 1980s.

    I picked up the Taylor et al book *Multiculturalism* hoping, I think, to get a sense of the rise of this discourse broadly speaking in education. But I have a feeling that book is philosophical and much less historical.

    As for your final question on serious and rapid u-turns in consciousness, let me hazard a guess: I would look to the popular pre and post-World War I moral and cultural sensibilities. WWI did something to ease the entry of modernity into America’s consciousness, even while we see reactions to that easing in the 1920s with various types of conservatism.

    – TL

  2. really interesting. sounds like a spectacular archive.

    i’m going to find any story about the end of the 1960s-70s radicalism unsatisfying without some story about its beginning (you suggest as much with the SDS reference). just to play a sort of devil’s advocate, perhaps this isn’t so much a turn as some kind of return?

    wouldn’t emphasizing this sudden turn just make it easier to tell a (more conservative) story about how there was an irruption of childish confrontationalism in the 1960s, which devolved on the one hand into impotent radicalism quickly ‘mugged by reality,’ and on the other into shallow multiculturalism–proudly confronted by the mainstream, the true heirs of the 1950s consensus, which is to say the Reagan-republicans and neo-conservatives…a battle we’re still fighting today…or something like this? in order to avoid this kind of narrative, I think one would have to explain how the amazing quotes you provide (“I feel castrated and raped by the NEA…”) became possible in the first place.

  3. “I did a great deal of research in the NEA Archive for my first book . . .”

    You did a fair bit in Gelman, too, no doubt. What goes around, etc. etc.

    As for the substance of the post, it strikes me that the NEA is still paying the (political) price for its stances in 1970s. Given all the dalliances with fringe, radical, and revolutionary Left movements of various stripes, it’s little wonder teachers’ groups – and by extension, teachers themselves – remain an object of ire for the right: the follies of the ’60s can’t be punished enough

  4. @Tim: Your chronology of multiculturalism’s emergent and dominant phases is correct. As usual, the dominant phase is also the shallow phase, and also as usual, its opposition was at its most stringent when it was nearly toothless. Of course there were plenty of people who criticized the rise of ethnic studies in the late 1960s. But the chorus of anti-multiculturalism conservative educational thought really only picked up steam in the mid-1980s, during the William Bennett Department of Education years. All this really picked up steam with the Stanford Canon War that you’re very familiar with.

    The Taylor book on multiculturalism (which I blogged about here, is much more theoretical than historical.

    @Eric: I think your view of the history of 60s/70s radicalism is my view, and that the longer trend of conservatism is the one that should be emphasized. And yet the institutional twists and turns of the NEA (and the NEA was not alone) are intriguing to me.

    @Varad: Current teacher union bashing has little to do with NEA stances taken four decades ago and much more to do with the fact that our political elite has an easier time asking teachers to make sacrifices than those who can afford to.

    And by comparison to the major folly of the 60s–the Vietnam War–the exuberant rhetoric of the radicals was harmless. We mustn’t all continue to suffer punishment.

  5. @Andrew: I’ll take your word for it that what the NEA was doing in the 1970s has little to do with why the right is going after them now. It seems like an easy pretext, at least to me. But then for that to be true would require their current opponents to be aware of what the NEA was doing in the 1970s, and assuming that much historical awareness is probably unwontedly generous on my part.

  6. Andrew, this is a really interesting post. Thanks for drawing our attention to the history of education, which tends to be an understudied field among professional historians.

    Regarding other places where this phenomenon happened: A few years ago I was an RA for a prof who was writing a history of Native American history in the professional historical associations. He had me read through programs from old AHA/OAH meetings. That was a trip. Within about a year or two, right about 1970, these organizations quickly went from being old-boys gatherings to being self-conscious, self-scrutinizing gatherings of a relatively diverse bunch of scholars with a diverse bunch of topics. I recall that the transition was very quick and very palpable.

    Some time in the last couple of years, the AHA Perspectives ran a story on one of those meetings (1969 or 1970?) when Staughton Lynd ran unsuccessfully for AHA president. That might be interesting reading.

  7. Brian–Thanks for this. Indeed, the historical associations, along with those of the other humanities and most of the social sciences made dramatic shifts in the late 60s and early 70s. I’ve read quite a bit about the attempted takeover of the AHA by the antiwar caucus, led by Lynd among others. They really angered the old guard!

  8. Professor Hartman,

    This is tangential to your main post, but the Steinhart School at NYU has posted a video of a conference in May on Jesse Lemisch’s “Present Mindedness Revisited: Anti-Radicalism as a Goal of American Historical Writing Since World War II,” This conference discusses some of the issues pertaining to the anti-war insurgency within the historical profession and includes Staughton Lynd in the panel. You can find the video at http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/historyintheclassroom/video It is the second video down. You might enjoy the third one also.

  9. Thanks for the suggestion Brian. I’ll check it out. Lemisch is one of my favorite leftist critics of higher education and the historical discipline.

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