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Recent Work on Student Activists

Excerpt from Christian Bay, "Political and apolitical students: facts in search of theory." Journal of Social Issues 23(3):34-51, 1967

I shall not attempt an exhaustive survey of all available data on student activism or student leftism generally. The reader is referred to several of the articles in this issue for a summary of these data; the articles by Trent and Craise and by Flacks are particularly relevant. Of especial importance to the line of argument which I have been developing are the following findings.

Berkeley, 1957 -- Selvin and Hagstrom Findings

Hanan C. Selvin and Warren O. Hagstrom in December, 1957 while things were still fairly quiet on the Berkeley campus, did a study of the views on civil liberties in a sample of 894 Berkeley students (Selvin and Hagstrom, 1965). Anticipating that abstract statements favoring the Bill of Rights would sooner indicate conformism than liberalism, these investigators elicited responses to specific civil liberties issues involving conflicts with other values. On the basis of these responses they constructed a Libertarianism Index. They divided their sample into three groups: highly libertarian (34%), moderately libertarian (46%), slightly libertarian (20%).

Of interest here are the data comparing the highly libertarian students with the Berkeley student body in general. In a linear relationship, again, the proportions of highly libertarian students on the Berkeley campus ascend from freshman to senior and graduate level: 21% -29% -34% -40% -54%. The relationship between libertarianism and grades is inconclusive in the lower division but clear in the upper division: among A to B+ students 54% are "highly libertarian", compared to 37% among B to C+ students and 25% among students at C level or below.

Children of blue collar workers among Berkeley students are libertarians more often, by a wide margin, than are children of parents better able to support their offspring financially through college; this is true in spite of the fact that blue collar parents average lower educational attainments than other parents and are likely to be relatively non-libertarian themselves. "Greater economic independence, in the sense of self-support", conclude Selvin and Hagstrom "is strongly associated with having more libertarian attitudes than one's parents" (Selvin and Hagstrom, 1965, 504).

Among male students the social science and humanities majors were by a wide margin found more libertarian than the rest, with engineering and education (a field that has recruited low achievers in Berkeley) and business administration at the bottom. Among female students, social welfare majors were most libertarian, while life science majors shared the next level of libertarianism with social science and humanities majors, and with education majors once again at the bottom. And, finally, fraternity and especially sorority students -- who are least likely to get to know well people with unorthodox ideas -- are least likely to be libertarians, compared to students with other living arrangements.

Berkeley, 1964 -- Somers' Data

In November, 1964, when the student rebellion at Berkeley was under way, Robert H. Somers interviewed a carefully drawn sample of 285 Berkeley students: He found 63% to favor the goals of the Free Speech Movement, while about 34% approved of the FSM's tactics; clearly favoring goals as well as tactics were 30%, and Somers calls this group the militants, while the moderates, again 30%, clearly supported FSM's goals but not the means used, and 22% conservatives were opposed to the ends sought as well as the tactics used (Somers, 1964).

For my purposes the crucial findings of this study are summarized as follows by Somers: "it is hard to overlook the fact that in our sample there is a strong relation between academic achievement and support for the demonstrators. Among those who reported to our interviewers a grade point average of B+ or better, nearly half (45 per cent) are militants, and only a tenth are conservatives. At the other end, over a third of those with an average of B-or less are conservatives, and only 15 per cent are militants". If the FSM represented a minority of students, Somers concluded, it would be "a minority vital to the excellence of this university" (1964,544).

Berkeley 1965 -- Heist's Findings

Early in 1965 Paul Heist did a study of a sample drawn from a list of more than 800 persons said to have been arrested in the Sproul Hall sit-in (Heist, 1965). On advice of their legal counsel, about 50% of the 33% sample refused to return the questionnaire but the rest cooperated, 128 in all; an additional 60 FSM activists were recruited subsequently as subjects for the study. In addition, a random sample of 92 seniors (class of 1964-1965) were given the same two questionnaires. Also, Heist had access to the same attitude inventory data from 340 seniors (class of 1962-1963)and from"2500+" entering freshmen, all at Berkeley. Further details of this study by Heist plus other related work are presented by Trent and Craise in this issue.

Heist developed an Intellectual Disposition Index on the basis of six of the twelve scales in his attitude inventory, and with this instrument divided his FSM sample and his three general student samples according to eight "degrees", from low to high Intellectual Disposition. Here is what he found:

"For the total FSM group we find almost 70 per cent in the top three categories and none in the bottom three, and it is to be remembered that a large proportion, in fact, the majority, of the FSM persons were freshmen, sophomore and juniors. The number of persons in these upper categories in the senior sample amounts to 25 and 31 per cent. The Free Speech Movement drew extraordinarily larger proportions of students with strong intellectual orientations, at all levels (freshmen through graduate)." (Heist, 1965, 21-22a).

Watts and Whittaker and FSM

William A. Watts and David N. E. Whittaker's study of FSM activists compared to Berkeley students generally started with this hypothesis: "We expected that FSM members would be more flexible as defined and measured by personality tests of flexibility-rigidity . . . than their counterparts who were less committed, neutral, or even opposed to the Movement" (Watts and Whittaker, 1966, 43).

Their study was based on questionnaires administered to a chance sample of 172 participants among the 1000-1200 students who "sat in" at Sproul Hall in the afternoon of December 2nd, 1964, (and who were on this occasion not arrested, or not yet, except for the two thirds who stayed on all night). In addition, the same questionnaire was given to a random sample of 182 Berkeley students at about the same time; 146 of these cooperated. The instrument included a 27-item rigidity-flexibility scale. The most important result of this study, for present purposes, is its indication of "strong support for the prediction of greater flexibility among the FSM members" (1966, 59). The authors conclude that this latter finding is of particular interest considering the purported rigidity of the FSM members in negotiations with the University administration, and suggests the necessity of distinguishing between a trait of rigidity as psychologically defined and commitment.

Two other findings of the study by Watts and Whittaker should be noted in passing. First, with an additional sample of 181 students drawn from the District Attorney's arrest list for December 3, and 174 names drawn at random from the Student Directory, they failed to establish greater academic achievement on the part of the FSM'ers compared to other students, and concluded that these activists were quite typical or average with respect to grade point averages (1966, 52). While Watts and Whittaker's objective check is more trustworthy than the data on grade point averages reported in the Somers study which were based on respondents' information, I am inclined to discount, until substantiated by further research, this particular finding by Watts and Whittaker, because it appears to run counter to so many other findings discussed in this article. It may well be valid for the 773 who were arrested, though I would have liked to see a replication of the study, which can easily be done; if it is valid for this group, I would still doubt that it is valid for FSM activists generally. It is possible, for example, that the most academically as distinct from intellectually oriented students among FSM activists felt greater anxiety than the rest about their academic credits, and were more likely to shrink from taking the most extreme risks.

Secondly, the FSM students were far more likely to have parents with advanced academic degrees, compared to the cross-section sample: "approximately 26 per cent of the fathers and 16 per cent of the mothers of the FSM sample possess either Ph.D. or M. A. degrees compared to 11 per cent and 4 per cent respectively in the cross-section" (Watts and Whittaker, 1966, 53 and Table 4). This finding does not contradict Somers' finding that student militants were more likely than the rest to have blue-collar fathers. Among several factors that could be taken into account here, I would emphasize the difference between having militant attitudes and being prepared to jeopardize academic achievements; the value of academic credits may well loom somewhat larger to the self-supporting student from a working class background, than they do to students from families in which academic proficiency or intellectual gifts or future financial safety tends to be taken for granted. The latter category among the militants may be more likely to risk jail and expulsion for their beliefs.

I have confined this brief inquiry to activists on the Left, who are far more significant than those on the Right, both by their numbers (at least in the better universities), and by their tendency to persist in political activities disturbing to the university "image" desired by most administrators and trustees. In so far as rightist student groups, the most important one among them at the moment being Young Americans for Freedom, have staged demonstrations, they have usually been ad hoc counter-demonstrations, directed against issue-oriented protests by liberal or leftist student activists; there have been no protracted campaigning or even articulate political programs; and while student leftists have tended to be fiercely independent of older leftists, or of the "generation over thirty" generally, there has been no evidence of a corresponding intellectual independence among organized rightist students.

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last revision March 20, 2002


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