Teaching ‘The Sixties’


We routinely offer courses on the transformative decades of US History. Departments place “The 1970s” or “The Eighties” in course catalogues, hoping these tidy chronologies will inspire enrollment. These deep dives are an efficient means of focusing our students on, say, Global Oil Shocks, Nixon’s machinations, or Ronald Reagan as a cultural icon. It helps that parents may have told their kids tall tales about living in a moment of high political drama.

The decade unit presents considerable planning challenges, however. These offerings are not survey courses, in which we spirit our students across broad swaths of time. There is no pressure, for example, to get out of the Colonial Period to appropriately cover an Age of Revolutions. A challenging pedagogical question is broached immediately as one sits down to craft a syllabus: how does a professor hold student attention and curiosity as she works away in a rather narrow chunk of time? The compression creates knots but it also presents incredible opportunities for comparison. The Vietnam War intermingled with the New Left, and both shared a space and fed off the Counter Culture. Tracing such ebbs and flows is the fun of “The Sixties” and students can hone skills of analysis by digging deep into the details.

To state what I said just above another way: a course on the transformative decade has to proceed thematically and episodically, rather than narrating long arcs of time. What we lose in Change Over Time we gain in historical thickness and connectivity. Students can move from idea to idea, from movement to movement, in a tight chronological space. Martin Luther King published Why We Can’t Wait in 1963 and Betty Friedan released her blockbuster The Feminine Mystique only a year later. Both King and Friedan sensed that things had to change but each focused on different sites of liberation: i.e. the civil rights or the domestic setting. King can and should be placed into the “Long Civil Rights Movement” and Friedan’s Second Wave Feminism was obviously preceded by a First Wave. The deeper context can be mentioned in a lecture but these two books offer an excellent means to show that a short span of time witnessed a burst of emancipatory imaginations. These visions can be braided together to interrogate points of disagreement, conflicts, and analogies.

Interpretative tools can be used to size up the decade. My opening lecture expanded the chronology just beyond “The Sixties” and also noted that Americans are still fighting the battles touched off in debates over gender, race, truth, and revolution. The Culture War that students are familiar with — the notion of identity politics and questions of sexual freedom — gained considerable momentum in a short space of time as sixties rebels generated an intense conservative blowback. A student raised her hand during our initial discussion to express interest in discussing “the legacies” of the sixties, specifically the idea of “political correctness.” We are constantly asking ourselves if Sixties Rebels would be pleased with the way things have shook out over the past fifty years. Thus, almost every class discussion offers a horizon beyond the decade.  I also stressed in my opening lecture that human behavior does not conform to decades. It’s not as if Americans go out of bed on January 1, 1960 and decided, “Hey, I think I will change my life!” The decade unit of measure can illuminate the past but it can also cramp our historical imaginations. I tried to precisely define The Sixties: this course moves from the Greensboro Sit-Ins (Winter 1960) to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency (August 1974).

Another strategy is to give the class an intellectual task. Here I must offer a confession: I inherited this course from a retiring American Studies Professor at Notre Dame named Ben Giamo. Ben let me keep the title (“Witnessing the Sixties”) and he also allowed me to use his course description. His generosity reminded me just how much a good effort at teaching requires collegiality. Because of Ben I was able to get a quick jump off the blocks. Ben’s spirit is very much in the room: in order to leaven the decade unit of time we use his aesthetic and political construction of “Witnessing.” On the one hand, this term is loaded with a spiritual and theological weight. Men and women of the sixties put their bodies and freedom on the line as a witness to their visions for a better society. On the other hand, a witness is technically an individual who saw something happen and then has to render into words what exactly they apprehended. Students carefully examine images of Civil Rights demonstrators being harried by attack dogs and fire houses; they listened to a speech Betty Friedan in New York City gave amidst a 1970 march for equal rights; students watched original footage of Bob Dylan singing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963; later in the semester the students will see the Berrigans burn blood-soaked draft records with homemade napalm. This course slows down to ask exactly how such spectacles or “experiences” can be communicated in words.

The course calls students to be a “Cloud of Witnesses” who try to hear, see and feel the Spirit of the Sixties. We want to do this to the best degree possible while acknowledging the epistemological limits of studying the past in this manner. We cannot actually travel back in time to imbibe the spirit of the age, but we can immerse ourselves in its ideas, marches, sounds, and pageantry. Witnesses must then take a final step to communicate to others the importance of the event beheld. After the initial witnessing, we then create the aesthetic and literary forms that convey the “history” we were just privy to. Witnessing is thus content and form: students evaluate art from the sixties; we listen to the Beatles after their drug turn; we read works of “New Journalism” by Michael Herr and Tom Wolfe. In my next entry, I will address the learning and writing component of the course more fully.

I divided the course into seven parts so as to give our proceedings chapter-like breaks. Inevitably, a few sections sound similar themes. Some lessons preview what is to come. Here are the seven:

Part I: The Spawning Ground (The 1950s)

Part II: New Ideas, New Dreams

Part III: Movements: Students, Antiwar, Civil Rights

Part IV: Drugs, the Counterculture, and Hippies

Part V: Identity as Liberation

Part VI: 1968

Part VIII: Watergate and the End of the Sixties


Ideally, each section lays a groundwork for the one that follows. We cannot understand the identity turns of the late 1960s without thinking about ideas of liberation created in the first half of the sixties by thinkers like Friedan. I deliberately placed Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience in Part II to prepare the ground for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in Part IV.  I thread together the sections with frequent mentions of liberation, identity, music, and political/social movement. So far we have generated two meta questions for the course: (1) how can persons be made more free? and (2) what contradictions (class, race, gender) does the fight for liberation reveal? We are also broaching the question about the differences between a cultural revolution and a political revolution.

This is the first installment of three on my class “Witnessing the Sixties.” This post addresses planning, syllabus-creation, and interpretive tools. A second post will examine assignments and evaluation; a third will offer a reflection on the course as a whole.


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