Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Subversive orientation materials from Columbia in the thirties.
By Alex Eynon
At institutions like Columbia, which—as we are gleefully reminded by a relentless parade of sweatshirts and admissions pamphlets—was founded in 1754, the vaguely sanctifying aura of an illustrious past floats around campus. One dimension of this school history is a particularly Columbian brand of liberalism and student activism. Most assume this is the legacy of the famous protests of the spring of 1968, when students reacted to the discovery of a link between the administration and defense research for the Vietnam war, among other issues, by occupying campus buildings until they were forcibly removed by the NYPD.
In fact, though campus activists may struggle to carry on the proud, if sometimes ill-fitting mantle of ’68, a 1933 orientation handbook sent out to the incoming class of 1937 in defiance of the administration reveals that at this date Columbia had already “flaunted its liberal reputation for decades.” The then-radical Spectator produced the book in response to a series of controversies, including the dismissal of faculty and staff with communist sympathies, and the expulsion of Spectator editor in chief Reed Harris after a series of columns virulently criticizing university dining services and the football program.
In response to these events, the handbook’s editors assert, students “have shown marked unwillingness, in many instances, to accept dictatorial measures.” They encourage new students to continue to become strong advocates of academic freedom in the broadest sense, combating an administrative culture in which while “Polite radicalism in the classroom is looked on understandingly, vigorous action on the public rostrum is the subject of chastisement.”
The handbook also dispenses insights about Depression-era Columbia. Some of these, like the wry observation that, when King’s College was founded, “there were but thirteen college-bred people on Manhattan island, all of them employed, we presume,” are surprisingly good anticipations of contemporary liberal arts anxieties about life after the ivory tower. Another revelation is that, judging from the 1933 commentary, no one (or at least no student publication) has ever cared much for Columbia football. Sections of the book imply, however, that even at this relatively early date a shadowy committee of wealthy and conservative alumni could only be placated by keeping football alive. In contrast, expelled former Spectator editor Reed Harris claimed that the sport “produc[es] lead soldiers of mediocrity.” The handbook also predicts the imminent elimination of the fraternity system, which it derides as the thoroughly debunked product of a “myth of collegiateness,” increasingly abandoned for more intellectually stimulating society. Nevertheless, a peek at the editions of succeeding years divulges series of neatly recorded football scores and directories of Greek letters.
Does this orientation guide have anything to say to activists today, or is it just a relic? It could be of interest to the organizations currently pushing for administrative reforms on issues like fossil fuel divestment and sexual assault policy, though perhaps only cynically. In the context of the four year cycle of the undergraduate experience, however, choosing not to dwell on this legacy may have an upside—it allows each generation of students to set out afresh to transform the social and intellectual landscape, possibly, as never before. And many of them do, in ways great or small. But inevitably, they cede their place to the next round, who undertake the task all over again–hopefully with new problems.