Whatever Happened to Student Power?

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Picture of a high school classroom.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Schplook.

What will the high school of the future be like? Different. It will surely be freer; students will be more independent. High school students of today haven’t reached any peak of possible maturity. The students of tomorrow will be more mature than we are. Just as administrations have already become more liberal about dress codes, so tomorrow they will become more liberal about studies. And `formal education’ will become less formal.
These words from the anthology “Our Time Is Now,” circa 1970, edited by John Birmingham, call attention to a part of history that is all but forgotten: the student power movement in American high schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The stereotype is that all the action as far as demonstrations were concerned took place in the universities, and that if it did spread to high schools, those younger students were copying their elders. Another stereotype is that students were mainly protesting the “big” issues, like civil rights and the war in Vietnam.
Maybe that’s how the protest era started, but once it did, students, especially high school students, were also seeking reform of their schools, demanding a bigger voice for students in how these schools were run. In my own high school, circa 1969 or 1970, a group of radical students issued a list of “10 demands.” The only two I remember – the right to go out for lunch and the right to have soda machines in the schools – seem laughable today.
But these demands, and others like them across the country, were part of a movement that was called “student power.” This movement is barely remembered today and has very little counterpart in today’s high schools.
The 1960s was an age of protest, and many young people began to look at themselves as a vanguard of change. Inevitably, kids began to make connections between the hierarchical nature of American society and that of their high schools. Faculty and administrators usually had the right to overrule student governments and censor student newspapers, unilaterally impose behavior and dress codes on the students and, in some cases, inspect students’ lockers without permission. As a student at the Bronx High School of Science during that era, even during a “free” period, I couldn’t go from the study hall to the library without showing my program card.
An essay by Mike Fox, then a student at John Bowne High in Flushing, N.Y., that was first printed in an underground newspaper and then anthologized in “Our Time Is Now,” compared life in the school to his experiences working on a farm during the summer. “The farmer doesn’t give a damn about his cows,” Fox wrote.

“The only time farmer X—- (presumably the school principal) cases about us is when it involves out production. We produce marks and grades instead of milk. We are also bred for further production outside of Bowne. When a farmer notices that a cow isn’t producing well enough, he calls her out and sells her to the slaughter house. In the same way, we are called out after Bowne, into college, or remain with the herd or into the army to be slaughtered.”

As we’ve mentioned, many of these mini-revolts were at least partially instigated by things that we might consider trivial today, but at the time were considered important parts of young people’s identity. In Young Activists: American High School Students in the Age of Protest by Gale Graham, Graham mentions how some school districts forbade long hair and facial hair not only for male students, but also for male teachers. She quotes Geoff Burkman, who was a student at a Cincinnati high school in the late ’60s, as saying, “We pushed things as far to the
limits as we could …. For instance, if the code said no sideburns below the bottom of the ear,
then we all made sure we grew our sideburns right down to that line.” Pants for girls were
another battleground. Graham recounts how female students at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn organized, risked being sent home, and called for days when they all wore pants to school.
In time, the rebellious mood spread even to schools where students weren’t really political. Jean Schaffer, who taught in Boston and New York City schools for thirty years, in the late ’60s was teaching at East Boston High School, which served a conservative, working-class neighborhood. Toward the end of the year, the freshmen, sophomores and juniors were required to stay in their home-room classes for several days so they wouldn’t interfere with the seniors’ rehearsals for graduation. One student, says Schaffer, started to loudly object, and the others joined in. Schaffer encouraged them to write down their dissatisfactions. They soon turned their writings into an underground newspaper, with Schaffer as advisor, which they distributed off-campus because of school rules.
As Graham points out, many of the gains students made during this era were the result of lawsuits and court decisions, often involving the American Civil Liberties Union and its state affiliates. The ACLU backed the Tinker vs. Des Moines case, in which students successfully sought the right to wear black armbands to mourn the dead in Vietnam, and the Goss vs. Lopez
case, in which students in Cleveland who were punished with suspensions won the right to due
process. In 1968, the organization issued a Guide to Student Rights for young people.
What happened to student power? Just like the overall protest movement, it may have been a victim of Kent State, the recession of the 1970s, the increasing competition to get into colleges, the higher cost of college education and resultant student debt, the conservatism of the Reagan era or all of the above. Many of the situations that the high school rebels of the ’60s objected to, like cops in the school and dress codes, are still in place.
Frank M., who taught high school studies in Suffolk County, N.Y., from 1999 to 2013, says that
at his school, there was little censorship of the student newspaper. Students had a voice when
issues like dress codes or electives were being discussed, but the school board had the last word. Told about the “60s students” demands that current issues be discussed in the classroom, he said, “They are discussed in some classes, but overall, there are other outlets for that, like the Model U.N. Club.” Overall, he said, students who view themselves as a revolutionary force or part of a vanguard are “very few and far between.”
Julia Judge, who graduated from Onteora High School in Woodstock, N.Y., in 2011, recalls, “From what I understand, everything publicly organized at my school had to be approved by a
higher up, either a teacher or a principal or someone otherwise employed by the school.” She
does remember a student petition for a “senior lounge” in the basement of the school, but that
was shot down by the administration. “A lot of the small changes that occurred over the years,
dress code included, seemed to be more because of pressure from parents than students.”
Jean Schaffer, who moved from Boston to New York City in the ’70s and taught there, remember that in the ’90s, many students in her school became very active in a “Stop the Violence” club, but the impetus for the club came from the principal, not the students themselves.
Will a new student power movement emerge? In today’s increasingly competitive world, students often look on high school as a mere way station to college and career. In these circumstances, it doesn’t seem likely. Still, the student power movement touched untold thousands of lives and, in this way, made a lasting contribution to society.

Raanan Geberer is a community journalist who lives in his native New York City and is a longtime reader of Tikkun. He is active in local politics and is very passionate about Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, since his father was one of a relatively small number of Americans who volunteered for the Haganah in 1948. He also has written two novels, Song of the Conquerors and Moish and the Mob.