John McMillian: Today's Reverberations From the 60s

Roundup: Talking About History

[John McMillian teaches in the Harvard College Writing Program. He is writing two books, Tom Paine's Children: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media (forthcoming, Oxford University Press) and Beatles vs. Stones: The History of a Legendary Rivalry (forthcoming, Free Press).]

It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama will help the United States finally transcend the divisive culture wars that have beleaguered the country since the 1960s. But by some accounts, we've already begun to witness a calmer climate on American campuses. As Patricia Cohen wrote in The New York Times last July, the graying of the professoriate and attendant influx of younger scholars have reduced "the intense passions and polemics that roiled campuses during the past couple of decades."

Many professors who cut their political teeth in the New Left and civil-rights movements during the 60s went on to fight fierce battles over multiculturalism and identity politics in the 1980s and 1990s. By contrast, younger scholars have come of age in an era of comparative tranquillity. Many of us are saddled with enormous loan debt, and in today's hypercompetitive job market, even those who are politically minded may not feel inclined to take to the hustings.

This is something I see from a special vantage. Along with Jeremy Varon, an associate professor of history at Drew University, and Michael S. Foley, professor of history at the University of Sheffield, I have founded and edit a new journal, The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture, published by Routledge. Born between 1964 and 1970, we're too young to have ever been fully in the decade's thrall, but we're old enough to know that we missed something big.

We are part of a boom in the scholarly study of the 60s. In addition to a recent spike of public interest in the culture of that decade — evident in a profusion of film, television, and stage treatments, books, articles, and memoirs — in the past couple of years, perhaps a dozen academic conferences in the United States and overseas have been devoted to the 60s (and of course many of them coincided with the 40th anniversary of 1968, the watershed year for global political protest).

Since our initial call for papers in June 2007, we've been deluged with more high-quality essays than we can hope to print. Much of the new work on the 60s has been fascinating. In recent years, the historiography of the black-power movement has been rewritten to stress its international roots and its connection to longstanding African-American organizing traditions. Studies of the New Left and counterculture now tend to broaden their focus from epicenters like New York and San Francisco to include less-celebrated locales. And those who study "the global 60s" are doing more than just exploring overlooked geographies; they're also examining the global structures that produced dissent in such diverse settings. Finally, a wealth of new scholarship explores how the 60s are constructed in memory, and how that decade continues to shape our politics and culture....

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