THE SIXTIES: TURNING ON, TUNING IN Today's college students find hippie decade relevant to their feelings, concerns


A hundred students are listening intently as Hugh D. Graham lectures on President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society in his American history class at UMBC.

Meanwhile, across town a small group of older students discusses the civil rights movement in Susan Burton's sociology class at Goucher College.

Both courses concentrate on the 1960s, a subject of increasing interest to students at local colleges and on campuses across the nation.

Dr. Graham, who is author of "The Civil Rights Era," characterizes the growth in student interest as "precipitous." He recalls enrollment was about 24 when he began teaching his "America During the '60s" course 10 years ago. In 1986, he saw class size climb to 60.

"Now it's over a hundred," he says. "That's a pretty good barometer. It's been an acceleration. That's happening at most campuses. I go to my historical meetings and see so many '60s books coming out. That's a real hot item."

At Loyola College, sociology professor Michael Burton, husband of Goucher's Susan Burton, reports adding a second section to his "Protest! Legacy of the '60s" course two years ago. Both sections have been filled ever since, with 35 students in each.

Scholars point out the '60s were an unusually rich, and tumultuous, period of American history, ushering in the civil rights battle, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, student revolt, the women's movement, the counterculture and the thrust toward environmental and consumer protection. Violence and assassinations burst on the scene, adding a tragic dimension. And as some students note, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll came along to crash the party.

Area professors agree students are attracted to '60s studies ilarge part because of their fascination with the music, the larger-than-life cultural figures and the counterculture.

"Some students sign up for the course just because of the popular culture," observes Goucher professor Julie Jeffrey, who teaches the history of the '60s and '70s. "They're familiar with the music, and they feel some sort of relationship with the period, unlike most historical periods about which they feel nothing."

She recalls one male student became so engrossed in the '60s, he affected a hippie image, complete with hair down to his shoulders and beads around his neck.

Dr. Graham has had students at UMBC ask to write term papers about popular music figures of the '60s even though the course deals mainly with politics and social movements. Though often knowledgeable about the pop music, students, in his experience, invariably run into difficulty dealing with the subject in a true historic sense.

Asked to explain their attraction to the '60s, college studentsuggest a variety of interests, with music just one of many.

Joe Farrell, a 20-year-old junior and math major in Dr. Burton'"protest" course at Loyola, says he was drawn to the subject by the music of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and the need to to learn what their music said to people at the time. Through further study, he came to appreciate the significance of the civil rights and feminist movements as well.

Other students, struggling to understand their own time and, with the Persian Gulf conflict, their own war, bring up relevance.

Carl Katenkamp, 20-year-old history major at UMBC, says"Growing up in the '70s and '80s, you got all sorts of references to the '60s and what happened then, but no one ever explained why it happened. Now we're getting little messages dropped here and there about the same sort of thing happening again. Well, I wasn't even born then, so how can I remember?"

Joe McLouglin, 20-year-old history major at UMBC from NeYork, also sees similarities between the gulf conflict and the Vietnam War. "The late '60s seem more like today, just the way the politics went," he says.

Apart from politics, both students express great curiosity abouthe activities of college students in the '60s, ranging from campus protests and the free speech movement to pot smoking and hippie lifestyles.

Goucher's Dr. Burton says students quickly learn many concernof the 1960s are still pressing today, adding to the relevance. As an example, she cites a film viewed by her students that had a scene on '60s student activism at Berkeley, showing anti-apartheid signs.

"That's an eye-opener," she says. "A lot of students had no idea apartheid was an issue in 1960, and it's still an issue today. There's a connection."

Students often look back on the period with certain envy, as an exciting time to live. Noting that most young people tend to romanticize the '60s, Loyola's Dr. Burton says, "They feel they missed out on something. Their image of people of the '60s as all hippies into drugs and free sex is distorted because it doesn't represent what the mass of young people were doing at the time."

Dr. Graham agrees a certain amount of myth-busting is essential in teaching about the '60s.

"Students have a nostalgia about the '60s that minimizes the severity of some of the problems," he explains. "They view the counterculture and communes and soft drugs and music and brotherhood and sisterhood though rose-colored lenses. They wonder whether there was a Golden Age back then and a time when everybody wasn't grubbing for money for law school.

"They don't always appreciate the damage that was done to those poor kids in Haight-Ashbury, who were wrecked by violence and drugs."

Given the complexity of the '60s and the highly charged emotions that surrounded many of the events, some distortion perhaps was bound to color young people's impressions of the time. Now as college students, many are attempting to sort it all out.

"They're at the age when they no longer have to buy their parents' values," says Dr. Graham. "They feel they have to form their own views. For them the '60s were the formative experience of modern times. It formed their parents. It formed their music. They missed it. Let's see, what happened?"

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