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Radicals Then and Now

Monday, March 14, 2005 | I read today that University of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman is waiting for the results of a university review, to see whether Professor Ward Churchill’s speeches and lectures are merely inflammatory, or exceed the boundaries of academic freedom. What would she have done with Herbert Marcuse? (Hoffman has resigned effective June 30, 2005.)

In the fall of 1965 I enrolled in Revelle College’s young philosophy graduate program at the University of California, San Diego.

Mine was a ’50s privileged and sheltered upbringing: Francis Parker elementary school, The Bishop’s School, and Mount Holyoke College where I studied classical Latin, Spinoza and field hockey. My mother was one of the original subscribers to William F. Buckley’s National Review. My parents were not, at first, as repulsed by Joseph McCarthy as I now wish they had been, and I have a vague recollection of attending something called the Christian Anticommunism Crusade in downtown San Diego. I even wrote the brief supporting Barry Goldwater for our college-wide presidential debate.

UCSD changed all that. Richard Popkin’s charge was to create a top-notch Philosophy department, which he did by attracting outstanding faculty such as Avrum Stroll, Stanley Moore, Herbert Marcuse, David Norton, Rudolph Makkreel, and Paul Henry, S.J. Popkin persuaded Revelle College to require a two-semester humanities course for all its undergraduates, most of them bright, young scientists-in-training. All senior faculty took turns teaching.

It was not your grandfather’s humanities course. Among the many texts that roiled conservative Townies were “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” “The Balcony” by surrealist playwright Jean Genet, and Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man.” The teaching was outstanding, the students were hooked, and much of San Diego was outraged. Administrator/Biologist Paul Saltman did his best to mediate. He guarded our space and invited the community to come along.

I spent evenings translating Marcuse and the UCSD experience to my family, and to skeptical admirals at Coronado dinner parties. It was a time of tumult, scholarship, activism and a moment of choice for San Diego: whether to remain comfortably unevolved or grow up.

UCSD became a hub for fresh thinkers in philosophy and for war protestors. Eldredge Cleaver came to speak, Marcuse received regular death threats, and someone exploded a homemade bomb on his front lawn. He continued his demanding, highly disciplined classes on Immanuel Kant and his support for young revolutionaries. Angela Davis, unlike the rest of us, read Kant in the original German, as she had when she studied with Marcuse at Brandeis, and found her own powerful political voice.

Universities preserve roots and foster new growth. They are, at bottom, institutions with the radical agenda of bringing revolutionary ideas to fundamental theory. Herbert Marcuse brought world-class scholarship and upheaval to San Diego. He was demanding, threatening, and above all humane.

If he were speaking and lecturing today, I wonder what he’d be saying. Would we let him continue, much less pay attention? I miss him.

Joan McIver Gibson is a retired bioethics and philosophy professor at the University of New Mexico. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from UCSD in 1974 and was the first woman to do so. She currently serves as a panel member for the University of California Office of the President-National Laboratory Management, Panel on Environment, Safety and Health.

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