Mario Savio and the utopia of sterilized contentment


THE RECENT DEATH of Mario Savio recalled the indelible image of a 20-year-old philosophy student whose fiery speeches spearheaded the Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964.

Savio and other activists at the University of California had spent the historic summer of 1964 in Mississippi working for civil rights. When they came back in the fall, they brought the movement north, demonstrating against discrimination in employment by major San Francisco Bay area businesses.

Their recruiting of students and political speechmaking on campus angered executives of those businesses and their allies on the University of California Board of Regents, who pressured the Berkeley administration to enforce its policy against on-campus political activity. Mass student demonstrations, a campus strike and a sit-in followed, with 800 arrests, before the overwhelming support of the Berkeley faculty and student body forced the administration to back down.

The confrontation raised broader issues in American education and society that remain timely, articulated by Savio in two speeches whose texts are likely to survive in the annals of American oratory.

Prolonged adolescence

The Berkeley students were, first of all, challenging the uniquely American conception of college as a prolongation of adolescence, with the administration acting in place of parents and with students preoccupied with sports and Greek social life.

The protesters favored a model more typical of other democracies -- and of earlier periods in American history -- in which college education initiates students into adult roles as active, informed citizens.

Savio derided the crew-cut conformity of campus life: "The university is well-structured, well-tooled, to turn out people with all the sharp edges worn off -- the well-rounded person."

Second, the students were protesting the transformation of the modern university (or "the multiversity," in the famous phrase of their nemesis, university president Clark Kerr), from a center of open inquiry into a job-training and research agency for business, government and the military.

"Many students . . . have come to the university to learn to question, to grow, to learn -- all the standard things that sound like cliches because no one takes them seriously. And they find at one point or another that for them to become part of society, to become lawyers, ministers, businessmen, or people in government, very often they must compromise those principles which were most dear to them. They must suppress the most creative impulses that they have. . . .

"The best among the people who enter must for four years wander aimlessly much of the time questioning why they are on campus at all . . . and looking toward a very bleak existence afterward in a game in which all the rules have been made up -- rules which one can not really amend."

Moreover, the multiversity in itself had become a huge, factory-like bureaucracy indifferent to student needs. "If this is a firm and the regents are the board of directors and President Kerr is the manager, then the faculty are a bunch of workers and the students are the raw material. But we are a bunch of raw material that . . . don't mean to be made into any product, to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they business, be they government, be they organized labor -- be they anyone. We're human beings!"

Finally, Savio pictured the university as a microcosm of the postwar social order in which the majority of Americans were passive consumers of commercial products and political policies VTC determined by remote, technocratic elites in corporations and government.

"American society in the standard conception it has of itself is simply no longer exciting. . . . America is becoming ever more the utopia of sterilized, automated contentment. The 'futures' and 'careers' for which American students now prepare are for the most part intellectual and moral wastelands. This chrome-plated consumers' paradise would have us grow up to be well behaved children. But an important minority of men and women coming to the front today have shown that they will die rather than be standardized, replaceable and irrelevant."

Oratorical eloquence

Savio's speeches, whose texts I assign in my courses as models of oratorical eloquence, retain the power to galvanize today's students, many of whom have harbored, unarticulated, the same alienation from dehumanizing, bureaucratic institutions, the same powerlessness shared by millions of adult citizens as well -- the sense that they have been consigned to a lifetime playing a game in which someone else has made all the rules.

The image of the Sixties has been tainted by conservatives who blame the excesses of "the counterculture" for all our current social ills. The deterioration into mindless violence of later phases of Sixties protest movements sickened Savio himself and other responsible leaders. His words, however, deserve to be remembered as an expression of the highest ideals of the Sixties.

Those ideals were solidly in the tradition of the American Revolution, Jeffersonian democracy, Emerson's and Thoreau's appeals for resistance to conformity, and the movements for abolition of slavery, for women's rights and the right of workers to organize unions.

Even conscientious conservatives might lament the absence of any spark of rebelliousness against a stagnant political order by post-Sixties students, frightened by economic insecurity back into the same apathy decried by Mario Savio.

Donald Lazere holds the Cardin Chair in the Humanities at Loyola College. He was a graduate student at Berkeley in the Sixties.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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