The Legacy of a Movement
The year 1968 conjures images of students around the globe shouting in protest and marching the front lines demanding action. Students today, however, rarely throw rocks in passionate dissent. So what's changed, and why do we still care?
In connection with the symposium "1968: A Global Revolution" presented by the Center for International Studies on the 40th anniversary of the worldwide protests, Professor of French Jan Gross taught a seminar this fall titled "May '68 and Beyond." The seminar delves into the heart of events of this influential year in France and explores its continuing relevance today.
The course grew out of the symposium, pulling from Grinnell connections to the May 1968 events with filmmaker and film historian Glenn Myrent '76, a Grinnell alumnus living in Paris, who premiered a newly-released French documentary on 1968; and Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist specializing in social movements and change who previously spoke on anti-Semitism at a 2006 Center for Humanities symposium. The centerpiece of the symposium was Alain Geismar, one of the main leaders of the May '68 strike in Paris.
"We wanted to build a course around the exchange between the experts and students, and help them enter into dialogue about this year of protest and revolution," Gross says. "Having Alain Geismar come to our seminar was amazing, especially when we realized that he was as interested in Grinnell students and presidential politics as we were in his memoir, Mon Mai 68."
Particularly at a college such as Grinnell that promotes social justice, activism, and global awareness, there are inherent parallels of age and ideology connecting current students with the Parisian protesters of 1968--the protesters who fought against the traditional consumer culture and government control which they felt paralyzed them. The seminar prompts students to reflect on the generational differences between college students of then and now, and the spirit of the relationship between them.
The changing role and forms of activism clearly illustrate how student expression has changed since 1968. Seminar students Brenna Curley '09 and Sabrina Bardonille '09 both suggested how the current global climate and shape of hot-button issues influences this distinction: Iraq is so far away, there is no threat of the draft, our "Entitlement Generation" takes for granted that they will be heard. As Bardonille explains, students today often engage in a more pragmatic and cooperative form of activism, in contrast with the uproarious outrage demonstrated by students of the 1960s.
"Issues today have evolved, and how we approach them has evolved too. We aren't necessarily less active, but maybe we just have a new way of approaching action," she says.
If the tone and attitudes of youth are so different, then are the events of May 1968 still relevant? Gross hopes her seminar will help her students think broadly about this monumental question of history and evolution over time, and offer perspective on how this revolutionary moment shaped certain generations.
"We're looking at the question of 'What is the legacy of this movement?'" Gross says. "With a 40 year perspective, we can look back and make sense of the movement, and what it means both for the past and the present."