Mario Defends the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, 1965

Mario Savio was a philosophy major at UC Berkeley when the Free Speech Movement emerged in 1964.  He had spent time during the Civil Rights Freedom Summer that same year and was personally impacted (as were hundreds of other college students) by the injustice of segregation in the South.  This powerful and persuasive speaker became a leader of the movement.  In this passage he explains the reasons why students took the actions they did, not hiding his disdain for Clark Kerr, the university's president, and the kind of education that he thought Kerr was promoting. 

[T]he order banning student politics on campus was an ideal locus of fierce protest. It combined an act of bureaucratic violence against the students themselves with open attack on student participation in the Bay Area civil rights movement. The seemingly inexhaustible energy which the Berkeley students had so long devoted to the struggle for Negro rights was now turned squarely on the vast, faceless University administration. This is what gave the Free Speech Movement its initial impetus.

But the new restrictions were not aimed so much at curtailing activity which would result in civil rights work in the South as at halting the very active participation of students in the civil rights movement in the Bay Area. The University was apparently under considerable pressure to "crackdown" on the student activists from the right-wing in California business and politics....

The liberal University of California administration would have relished the opportunity to show off in the national academic community a public university enjoying complete political and academic freedom and academic excellence. And if student politics had been restricted either to precinct work for the Democrats and Republicans, or to advocacy (by public meetings and distribution of literature) of various forms of wholesale societal change, then I don't believe there would have been the crisis there was....[S]ectarian "revolutionary" talk can be tolerated because it is harmless. The radical student activists, however, are a mean threat to privilege. Because the students were advocating consequential actions...these radical acts, the administration's restrictive ruling was necessary....

The Free Speech Movement demanded no more -- nor less -- than full First Amendment rights of advocacy on campus as well as off: that, therefore, only the courts have power to determine and punish abuses of freedom of speech. The Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate endorsed this position on December 8, 1964 by declaring against all University regulation of the content of speech or advocacy -- by a vote of 824 to 115.

Probably the most meaningful opportunity for political involvement for students with any political awareness is in the civil rights movement. Indeed, there appears to be little else in American life today which can claim the allegiance of men. Therefore, the action of the administration, which seemed to the students to be directed at the civil rights movement, was felt as a form of emasculation....The student response to this "routine directive" was outraged protest....

We found we were being denied the very possibility of ``being a student" -- unquestionably a right. We found we were severed from our proper roles: students denied the meaningful work one must do in order to be a student. Instead we were faced with a situation in which the pseudo-student role we were playing was tailor-made to further the interests of those who own the University, those vast corporations in whose interest the University is managed....

[T]he schools have become training camps -- and proving grounds -- rather than places where people acquire education. They become factories to produce technicians rather than places to live student lives. And this perversion develops great resentment on the part of the students. Resentment against being subjected to standard production techniques of speedup and regimentation; against a tendency to quantify education -- virtually a contradiction in terms. Education is measured in units, in numbers of lectures attended, in numbers of pages devoted to papers, number of pages read. This mirrors the gross and vulgar quantification in the society at large -- the real world -- where everything must be reduced to a lowest common denominator, the dollar bill. In our campus play-world we use play money, course units....

It is significant that the President of the University of California should be the foremost ideologist of this "Brave New World" conception of education. President Clark Kerr dreamed up the frightening metaphors: "the knowledge industry," "the multiversity," which has as many faces as it has publics, be they industries of various kinds, or the Federal Government, especially the Pentagon and the AEC. He also invented the title "the captain of bureaucracy," which he is, by analogy with earlier captains of industry. He is the person directly charged with steering the mighty ship along the often perilous course of service to its many publics in government and industry. Not to the public, but to its many publics, the Kerrian whore is unlawfully joined.

Those disciplines with a ready market in industry and government are favored and fostered: the natural sciences, engineering, mathematics, and the social sciences when these serve the braintrusting propaganda purposes of "liberal" government. The humanities naturally suffer, so that what should be the substance of undergraduate education suffers. The emphasis is given to research instead of to teaching undergraduates. Teaching graduate students is less effected by this prostitution since such teaching is intimately bound to research. But the undergraduate has become the new dispossessed; the heart has been taken from his education -- no less so for science students -- for the humanities are no longer accorded the central role they deserve in the university.

And of course there are whole areas which never see the light in undergraduate instruction. Who takes undergraduate courses in the history of the labor movement, for example? Certainly no one at the University of California. Likewise, American Negro history is a rarity and is still more rarely taken seriously. To be taken at all seriously it would have to be seen as central to all American history.

In a healthy university an undergraduate would have time to do 'nothing.' To read what he wants to read, maybe to sit on a hill behind the campus all alone or with a friend, to 'waste time' alone, dreaming in the Eucalyptus Grove. But the university, after the manner of a pesky social director, sees to it the student's time is kept filled with anti-intellectual harassment: those three credits in each three unit course, those meaningless units themselves. The notion that one can somehow reduce Introductory Quantum Mechanics and Philosophy of Kant to some kind of lowest common denominator (three units apiece) is totally irrational, and reflects the irrationality of a society which tries to girdle the natural rhythms of growth and learning by reduction to quantitative terms, much as it attempts to market the natural impulses of sex.

From my experience, I should say the result is at best a kind of intellectual cacophony. There are little attractions in various places, philosophy in one corner, physics in another, maybe a bit of mathematics every now and again, some political science -- nothing bearing any relationship to anything else.

It is easy to see that there should be real resentment on the part of the students. But it is resentment whose causes are, as we have seen, very difficult for the student to perceive readily. That is why what occurred last semester gained its initial impetus from the very different involvements of what are mostly middle-class students in the struggles of the Negro people. Thus, it was both the irrationality of society, that denies to Negroes the life of men, and the irrationality of the University, that denies to youth the life of students, which caused last semester's rebellion.