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Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits – Part 4, Return of the Expressed

By 1970, I had made the leap from “class consciousness to experience,” a simple, but radical, step for those days and perhaps even now. I came to believe that, whatever else was true, students and I were “persons,” real and complex people. Our destination might be objective, but the journey was, in many ways, subjective.

In fact, they were related. There were plenty of facts in the world, but they needed to put in a context of reference and association before they became meaningful. Points, with or without   power, were useful, often crucial, but they were most useful – other than dotting I’s – when they were given literary texture. Rewrite the Gettysburg Address as a Fox news report and see how it sounds.

In one sense, it felt natural to come to this awareness because it emerged, as I’ve mentioned, during the counter-cultural period of the 1960’s – the period of what was called “campus unrest” and opposition to the war in Viet Nam when so many of the received assumptions of the previous period, to say nothing of Western Civilization itself, were being called into question.

I never was a Nietzschean – “the revaluation of values” — but all values were on the table, especially those that derived from the precincts of AUTHORITY. In America, it didn’t seem to matter to students whether those authorities were located in one’s home (father/father figures), in the Pentagon, Wall Street, or university administration buildings. Even Chairs of Departments were viewed with suspicion.

Almost a century after Matthew Arnold first stated his concern about the survival of “good literature” (“The Study of Poetry,” 1880), its future became dramatically uncertain. Literature with a capital L came under attack after Mai, 1968 by “theory”-minded critics who called into question every kind of authority and hierarchy, including the Classics — texts which, in my generation, were considered sacred cows. But the “Frenchies” were not cowed by Hindu prohibitions.

So embedded were these Books in our consciousness as pillars of the academic pantheon that it never occurred to us that the world had been or could be different. To see a bust of Plato, Michelangelo’s David, or Shakespeare on a teacher’s desk seemed as natural as using an Esterbrook fountain pen.

There are traces of serious history and literature on TV – PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre,” the History Channel – but it’s only a trace, the tail-end of a what may be a burnt-out cultural comet, but it’s too early to tell.

There are signs of hope for the likes of me and my contemporaries: the Internet (with access to Wikipedia and other sites of information) has reinvented the Library of Alexandria, as it were, as a source of world knowledge; previously priestly acts of inquiry – the province of scholars – are now available to anyone who can operate a Smart-Phone, Android, or Kindle.

As Luther’s edicts made everyman a priest, so the new technology may make it possible for everyman to become a Renaissance Man, and through texting to become a writer. What has changed, one hopes, is not the quality of words and texts that are being generated, but the modes of distribution.

Great words seem to endure whether they are preserved in Dead Sea Scrolls, stone, vellum, or microfilm. Genius transcends technology – it would seem. But it’s too early to tell; Perhaps it’s always too early to tell until the end of days.


Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for the next installment. Click here to view all the parts in the series, as they are added.

Howard R. Wolf is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow in The Department of English at SUNY-Buffalo. He is the author of The Education of a Teacher and Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile. Some of his recent work has appeared in Colere, George Orwell Newsletter, Moment (online), Evening Street Review, Prosopisa (India)and The Buffalo News.