Conservative writers like George Will and Robert Bork have been talking for some time about the bad influence of the ''liberal'' '60s, when American values supposedly started to go downhill. Many conservatives, especially the ''Christian conservatives,'' seem to believe that something called ''secular humanism'' invaded the American educational system at that time and subverted the national character and morality.
This has led me to think back to my own experiences of the '60s, especially my years as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in the early years of the decade. I had graduated from Monmouth College in 1961 and then gone on to the University, majoring in English. Living in a large city and attending a large, public university were new experiences for me after living in a small town and attending a small, church related college.
Actually, I felt rather liberated in some ways. I was having new, interesting experiences. I went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, concerts of jazz artists and the Minneapolis Symphony, saw interesting foreign films. Other grad students in my dorm were an assortment of odd and unusual characters and I was reading and learning many new things. My own liberating experiences perhaps paralleled the liberating experiences of the country during the Kennedy years.
Was I being exposed-- and corrupted-- by secular humanism or other malign influences? I don't think so. True, Minneapolis was at that time a sort of hub of liberalism (at least the Midwestern variety) represented in the Senate by former Mayor-- later Vice President-- Hubert Humphrey and former college professor and later Vietnam War protestor Eugene McCarthy. Maybe one person's freedom to think is another person's moral degeneration.
Actually, most of my professors seemed utterly uninterested in politics. I remember one of them confessing in the classroom that he just didn't know where he stood on an issue of freedom of speech that had come up on campus. The controversy had been caused by a political science professor named Mulford Sibley, who seemed to have a knack for stirring up opposition on campus and among the public.
I had one class with Professor Sibley, an affable, slightly befuddled, middle-aged man who looked a bit like the writer Sinclair Lewis. (He wasn't quite the stereotype of the absent minded professor, though I had classes from another one who fit that stereotype perfectly.) Professor Sibley was a pacifist, some sort of vague socialist, and mildly anti authoritarian; students absolutely loved him.
To many of the citizens of the surrounding community, the professor appeared to be a dangerous radical-- just because he had the temerity to question the war then building up in Vietnam. He fostered this image, in a way that even then seemed merely quaint, by always wearing a red necktie. The whole city of Minneapolis was excited (or was it mainly a media event?) when Professor Sibley was scheduled to take part in a debate on his pacifist views at the student union ballroom. The actual debate-- with a local, conservative businessman-- seemed somewhat of an anti-climax to me and, needless to say, didn't settle anything.
This was the time when anti-Vietnam War sentiment was just starting to build up. Some of my philosophy-major friends and I became interested in the cause and joined a group with the improbable name Liberals and Conservatives Against the War in Vietnam. (Or it may have been Conservatives and Liberals Against the War in Vietnam-- I forget.) This was not, of course, one of the bigger anti-war groups, which developed later. Our group never had more than ten members unless it gained more after I left the University in 1965.
Later, the student anti-war protests and the opposition to them became, in my view, more irrational and violent, as in the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. But at that time in the early '60s I think it seemed to many of us that the U.S. as a country was on an insane, suicidal course, flirting with nuclear disaster in the global arena and involved senselessly in a guerrilla civil war in Vietnam. Not only students but older, wiser heads like Eugene McCarthy had begun to take the same position.
When present-day conservatives fault the '60s as the root of present day evils, they are failing to see, in my opinion, the way in which the rebels of the time were responding to a world that appeared to be-- and maybe was-- controlled by a form of militaristic insanity propelling us toward doomsday. Dr. Strangelove was in the saddle, apparently oblivious to reality.
So the student rebels began to say ''Make love, not war'' and eventually carried the day, not without a lot of anguish. (And, yes, the soldiers of Vietnam were caught in the middle of this struggle.)
This was also the time of epic struggles for civil rights, something else that was in the air at universities and elsewhere in the '60s. Here, again, the '60s made its mark on history. It was an impulse, not toward immorality, but toward a higher level of morality.
Of course, this was also a time of increased sexual ''experimentation'' and change. Several of my professors were said to have non-standard sex lives. Their supposed more liberal views on sexuality weren't evident in the classroom, however. They never taught anything I would consider to be ''moral relativism,'' unless that phrase means any consideration of morality that is not strictly black and white.
I'm never sure what conservatives are talking about when they refer to ''secular humanism'' and ''moral relativism.'' I came from a fairly strong religious background and don't think I was brainwashed into any immoral thinking or behavior by the American educational system of the time. Maybe such immoral instruction developed later, but I wonder if these are bogus phantoms that conservatives conjure up out of their anti intellectual imaginations.
All the rebel movements of the '60s eventually developed their lunatic fringes and extremists-- the ''drug culture'' that developed at this time, the ''Black power'' militants, some of the rather odd types of feminists. But the underlying direction away from militarism and reactionary injustice toward peace and humane fairness was in tune, I would argue, with the deepest level of Judeo-Christian morality in American society.
Since the 1980's we have been in a period of strongly conservative influence if not dominance in the United States. But that trend has also had its lunatic fringe and extremist elements. The '60s rebelled against what we saw as injustice, reactionary stupidity, destructive policies-- and then eventually this rebel movement itself went to extremes.
Aren't we now in a situation where ''conservatism'' is stumbling into somewhat similar extremist blunders? And, in practical, political terms, isn't there a movement away from the political far right? The conservative bid to unseat President Clinton-- seen to some extent as a battle against the moral laxity bequeathed by the 'sixties-- was unpopular with the public and failed.
There are other possible signs of change. The front-runner in Republican ranks of presidential candidates for the year 2000, George W. Bush, is a ''compassionate conservative'' with egalitarian tendencies who seems somewhat like what used to be called a ''liberal.'' Maybe ''everything that goes around, comes around.''
In any case, we ought to be suspicious of commentators who see all changes in society as moral collapse and attribute it all to that complex period, the 1960s. When it comes to blaming it on the '60s, the charge is, at best, not proven-- at worst, a kind of slander and distortion of history.