Forty years ago today, the University community gathered together in a series of “teach-ins” that served as a focal point for activism against the Vietnam War. Today, the University community is again faced with another unpopular American military intervention, and teach-ins have been revived not only to commemorate their origin 40 years ago, but also to spark a new generation of student idealism and activism. Today’s teach-in concerns the controversial topic of an American global empire, and there will be a series of lectures and discussions covering such topics like “Consumerism and Mass Culture,” “Racism as a justification for the Empire,” “The War on Terror” and “Environment and Climate Change.” Every member of the University community, regardless of personal ideology, should participate in the events, which provide a crucial opportunity for individuals to educate themselves and critically examine American culture and policy.
The University should be proud of its role as the first major institution of higher education to mobilize in opposition to the Vietnam War. Until the teach-in movement, which only gained traction after success at the University, the American population had largely been in favor of — or was apathetic to — the war. But after former President Lyndon Johnson broke his 1964 campaign pledge to not expand the war, several University professors met to discuss a possible disruption of the normal lecture schedule. It was decided that the professors would forgo lecturing in their respective areas of study and would instead lecture on America’s intervention in Vietnam. Ultimately, because many, including former Gov. George Romney, criticized the professors for not teaching the classes they were assigned to teach, the decision was made to hold these special lectures after classes. Expecting only around 1,000 attendees, the professors were amazed when three times that number showed up. Pro-war protests, cramped space and even bomb threats did not deter the event, which went until 4:30 the next morning.
The teach-in spurred many similar teach-ins at Michigan State University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California at Berkeley, etc. and would serve as the foundation for many later social movements. The teach-ins served a vital role in educating the populace about America’s presence in Vietnam, which had been progressively escalating into a full-scale military intervention. The teach-in movement, more than any other force, was responsible for turning public opinion against a war that eventually ended up costing 58,000 American lives.
As community members gather tonight at various commemorative teach-ins, the shadow of another war — which is affecting thousands of college-aged men and women — casts itself over the nation. The parallels between now and then are remarkable. In 1965, the editors of this paper wrote, “Those who attend (need not) support the views which will be expressed. However … they owe it to themselves and their country to go, to listen, to question, to evaluate, and, if they then become inclined, to act.” It is in this tradition of responsible citizenship and intellectual scrutiny that the University community should attend tonight’s events.