Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
The Year of the Monkey: Revolt on Campus, 1968-69. By William J. McGill. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 297 Pages. $15.95. Reviewed by Peter Carroll, author of It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: Tragedy & Promise of America in the 1970$ (1982); and The Free and the Unfree: A New History of the United States (1977).
In the Chinese calendar, 1968 was the “year of the monkey” and, given the sinister connotations of that symbol, it may be no coincidence that in that year, William J. McGill began his administrative career as Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego. Within weeks of his appointment, McGill was embroiled in a series of major political crises that divided his campus and altered his personal life.
This memoir of that year focuses on such campus struggles as the reappointment of Marxist philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse; the proposal that Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver teach an experimental sociology course; the idea of creating a student-controlled college for “third world” studies (“Lamumba-Zapata College”) that was recommended by radical students, including Angela Davis; and the students’ response to the People’s Park imbroglio at the Berkeley campus. In each of these crises, Chancellor McGill was a central participant and his chronicle provides new information about the back-stage political maneuverings.
But the former chancellor is hardly an objective reporter. In fact, his prejudices are so blatant and so pervasive that his book has little value in explaining the origins and implications of student protest. What it does reveal—inadvertently—is the kind of administration attitudes and assumptions that often provoked student dissent and later inhibited reconciliation of campus conflict.
McGill assumes, first, that student dissent was the result of “emotional stresses” or “communal hysteria” rather than a response to real problems. “It seemed to me,” he writes, “that they were giving only lip service to the plight of the poor, the oppression of blacks, and the killing of illiterate peasants in Vietnam. There was nothing especially humane or compassionate in their attitudes toward victims of injustice.” McGill’s only evidence for such assertions exists in his opening phrase, “it seemed to me.”
McGill assumes, further, that the ideas expressed by student protesters were merely rationalizations of other motives. “It seemed to me,” he asserts, “that these actions were reflective of unconscious drives for power and were cloaked in philosophical justification so as to make them seem more morally acceptable.” This denial of the validity of moral outrage contradicts the findings of The President’s Commission of Campus Unrest,as well as the psychological studies of Robert Liebert and Kenneth Keniston. Once again, McGill’s evidence is reduced to “it seemed to me.”
McGill also assumes that “the mass” of student protesters were tricked into dissent by manipulative leaders. Not Vietnam and racism, he asserts, but “the speechmaking of charismatic radicals” created “an overpowering feeling of moral outrage and an urgent demand for direct action” that was “amazingly immature in bright students of college age.”
Assuredly more accurate are McGill’s autobiographical remarks: “What seemed to have happened,” he admits, “is that I have become harder and less compassionate.”