revisiting the Port Huron Statement’s focus on universities

(en route to Michigan) The Port Huron Statement (1962) inaugurated the New Left. I had forgotten that it concludes with an argument that universities are the most promising sites of social change. It’s interesting to revisit that argument 55 years later.

The statement is written in opposition to a “dominating complex of corporate, military, and political power.” It defines the Republican/Dixiecrat coalition as “the weakest point” in that complex, vulnerable to political opposition. In our time, someone writing a similarly radical manifesto might target the neoliberal political coalition in Congress, which often includes mainstream Republicans and moderate Democrats. Despite partisan polarization that makes Congress ineffective, this coalition musters majorities for policies that neoliberals like and that radicals oppose.

“But” says the statement, “the civil rights, peace, and student movements are too poor and socially slighted, and the labor movement too quiescent, to be counted with enthusiasm. From where else can power and vision be summoned? We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.”

This would be like saying in 2017 that #Blacklivesmatter, #Occupy, and the #Dreamers lack the resources to challenge the ruling coalition–and labor is too moderate–so social change should start in universities.

That seems an implausible claim on its face, but the Statement offers reasons:

First, the university is located in a permanent position of social influence. Its educational function makes it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. Second, in an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central institution for organizing, evaluating and transmitting knowledge. Third, the extent to which academic resources presently are used to buttress immoral social practice is revealed [by the way defense contractors and corporations rely on academia for technical research].

The Statement acknowledges the university’s serious limitations but adds even more reasons to focus there:

Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. … A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. … A new left must consist of younger people … A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. … A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond. … A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close up by every human being. … The university is a relevant place for all of these activities.

Reflecting on this argument in 2017, I’d propose:

  1. Quite a few people still think this way. In particular, they continue to see social movements, labor, and the universities as the promising sites of radical change, but they believe that the first two are too weak or quiescent. Political parties and campaigns, municipal governments, and working-class cultural movements are resources that seem to be overlooked, then and now.
  2. You don’t have to be paranoid to be concerned about the ideological capture of the university, if you are a conservative. That was an explicit proposal of a hugely influential document in 1962.
  3. Some reasons that the university resists the ideals of the Port Huron Statement are unfortunate: e.g., the influence of Big Money on research. But the university also resists these ideals because of worthy principles: independence, nonpartisanship, and intellectual diversity. (On the other hand, a friendly reading of the Port Huron Statement would conclude that its authors liked robust, untrammeled, and diverse debate.)
  4. It’s interesting to read this document in conjunction with recent and widely-publicized research by Kyle Dodson, who finds that students’ interactions with faculty tend to moderate their political opinions, but participation in student-led groups makes them more radical. The Port Huron Statement, of course, was written by students, not by faculty. Perhaps it prefigures today’s student organizing but not the current curriculum.
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.