Student Activism in the 1960s and 1970s

Student activism is defined as the movement of students who want to implement change in the political, economic, environmental, or social milieu of the society (Haskins and Benson 1988). In most cases, student activism is focused on student rights, specifically on the fight against tuition increase or curriculum changes. In extreme cases, student activism has also helped a lot in effecting changes in the political setting of a country. The fact is student activism was very active in these two decades.  This was true not only in Western countries, but in other parts of the world too.

In the Philippines, the 1970s were marked with protests against the conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.  Students from the country’s premiere university, the University of the Philippines, formed the so-called “Diliman commune” to barricade their campus against the onslaught of the military that remained loyal to the President. Students demanded the resignation of a corrupt leader.  The protests eventually led to the People Power revolution more than a decade later.

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In France, student activists were also instrumental in shaping the latest history of the country. At one point, the University of Paris was closed in 1968 because there was a brewing problem between the administration and the students. To denounce the closure of the university and to condemn the kicking out of student activists, Sorbonne students in Paris also started their own protests and mass demonstrations. The scattered movements stirred national consciousness and their small-time activities eventually intensified into a national civil disobedience.

In Indonesia, student groups were always the first group to stage street protests against the government. To prove their indispensability, other organizations would often seek to solicit the support of student groups to strengthen their causes. In the 1960s, university students held demonstrations to call for the elimination of alleged Communists within President Sukarno’s administration.  These student activists were also instrumental in the eventual resignation of Sukarno in 1967.

In Canada, the late 1950s and the 1960s also witnessed the emergence of several new left student organizations. At that time, two of the several dominant left groups in the country were the Company of Young Canadians (CYC) and the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA). From the pacifistic and moralistic Combined Universities Campaign for University Disarmament (CUCND), the SUPA was established in 1964. Its scope included grass-roots politics in underprivileged communes, and raising awareness of the ‘generation gap’ being experienced by Canadian youth and their adult counterparts.

At that time, student activism in the United States of America was also getting more active. Its causes specifically geared towards changing the existing educational system in the country. This does not mean to say that the causes these movements were fighting for were new. In fact, student activism in this country started way, way back when public education was just starting.  In fact, the earliest documented student activism dates back to 1930s. The American Youth Congress, a movement heavily supported by then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, urged the US Congress to act against racial discrimination.

The 1960s

The 1960s saw young people all over the world struggling to take part in their respective country’s future.  These young people wanted their voices heard, and so they went out on the streets in protest to make their government listen.

In America, the 1960s was a very crucial time. Together with the other young people worldwide, young Americans discovered their personal potential to help effect changes in their political and economic environment. At that time, their main concern were to give student clearer voice at school, and to fight racial segregation – a practice that had been prevalent before.

Indeed, political activism flourished in America at this point. Civil rights were high up on every movement’s agenda. Some even challenged the US participation in the Vietnam War. During the 1960s, school campuses were used as meeting points for political activities that would often include protests with marches (Miller 1987). Some of these protest rallies were violent that some participating students were unnecessarily hurt.     The 1960s was a turbulent time in the country.  Too much freedom was in the offing, and this was underscored by the many issues that were pulling the country down at that time.

In fact, those who fought for freedom and challenge the status quo were branded as “hippies.” Many adults criticized young people’s kind of music, clothes, sexual freedom, and even drug use. The term “the generation gap” was coined to explain the differences between these young people and the adults that surrounded them.

On the other hand, those who stayed on the side of the status quo were called “the establishment.” Yet, it was apparent that the lively democratic environment during the 1960s encouraged disagreements even among those who wanted to effect social and political changes in the country.

It is no wonder then that student activism in the US achieved political prominence during the 1960s. Several student movements were established for various causes back then.  One of these movements was the Ann Arbor Youth Liberation.  It figured students fighting for an end to state-led education.

There was also the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a movement which primarily worked against the increasing racism in the country. The movement also called for the incorporation of US public schools.

Another focal point of this period was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  It was a student-led organization that believed that schools are a social agent that both strengthens and oppresses society. The movement eventually produced the so-called Weather Underground. However, these organizations eventually died down in the middle of the 1970s.

The 1970s

As the heat of student activism started to dwindle in the 1970s, some young activists continued their struggle in a bid to gain more freedom and choices. The Viet Nam War that happened early on underlined the social estrangement that was echoed in the campaign of black Americans for justice and equality in an ever hostile society.            Revolution and liberation were still the prominent words, even as resistance to the war caused hippies, radical youth, hippies, artists and musicians to band together for a common cause.

The previous decade of protest supported an age of rage and idealism, of activism and rebellion, and of buoyancy and oomph. Yet, for many, the 1970s was still a decade to continue what had been started in the 1960s.

Although activism was no longer as intense as the previous decades, students have already realized their potential in changing the world.  And so, instead of going back to their safe cocoon, they continued their struggle to promote various causes.

This was true not only in the US, but in many other countries across the globe as well. For many young people, the dream of political and social justice has not waned. The 1970s may have seen the “hippies” going out of style but the causes they have adhered to remained intact and alive.

Perhaps, the advent of more advanced technological innovations, like the computers, has redirected the venue among student activists. Instead of going out for street protests, they have learned to use electronic medium to advance their causes.  In a way, the proliferation of the computers and the internet helped in spreading out the sentiments of students activists as far as social and political issues were concerned.


In the end, the 1960s and the 1970s redefined the world as it was.  Perhaps, no decade since the Second World War has changed the face of the earth than in these two historical decades. The world, more specifically America, would not be what it is now if not for the student activism that flourished during these decades.

Perhaps the young activists of the 1960s remain one of the most misunderstood young people to date. The fact that young people staked out their own social organization back then alienated and alarmed their elders.  Surprisingly, what sprung forth as peculiarly youthful rebellion – drainpipe-trousered men, long-hair on both men and women, net-stockinged women — has already been received by adults worldwide (

The 1970s, despite its relative serenity and quiet merely continued what had been started in the 1960s.  There were still student demonstrations all over the world, but they were not as intense as they were before. Yet, there was something in the 1970s that was not present in the previous decade. Perhaps learning from their experiences during the 1960s, student activists had become more enlightened and were less prone to rebellion unless really necessary.  Too much freedom began to come hand in hand with social responsibilities.  The “hippies” now belonged to a by-gone era and in its place sprouted a more practical youth.

In spite of all that transpired, it became apparent that a pattern has subsequently emerged.  The American university indeed became a political arena for a whole generation of Americans who already lost faith in the ability of the status quo to solve national concerns. These young people have come to realize the power that they yield in their collective hands. In other words, even before these young people discovered the adage that “what is personal is political,” they already belonged to a universe that believed they could alter the world ( Whether this was true or not, only history will be able to hand down a verdict.  Suffice it to say that perhaps what student activism longed for during these two decades, it was able to achieve.