The Year of Living Meaningfully

Gerald Lee Wilson and Virginia S. Wilson


Jon Gardiner



Many of the students who entered Duke in the late 1960s were expecting the kind of college experience their parents and older siblings had talked about, or that they had seen in movies and on television. This was not to be the case.

The year 1968 was, for those who found comfort in a world of stability and order, the worst of times; for those who challenged the existing order, the best of times. No tradition or idea was so sacred that it could not be examined and discarded.

One observer, Mark Kurlansky, in his book 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, wrote, "There occurred a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world." But in the U.S., at least, 1968 was the culmination of trends two or more decades in the making. Though our college generation, that of the 1950s (which really lasted until 1963), was known by later scholars as the "silent, conforming generation," there was an undercurrent of a rebellious spirit, given expression in the James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. One Kerouac character says, "We gotta go and never stop until we get there." The response was, "Where we going, man?" "I don't know man, but we gotta go." By 1968, this vague angst found a focus in the civil rights movement and then the Vietnam War, with the looming possibility of students being drafted.

Recently we sent e-mail messages to current students asking for their impressions of 1968. Some cited the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the withdrawal of President Lyndon Johnson from the presidential race, the rise of political figures such as Richard Nixon LL.B. '37 and George Wallace, and the beginning of a backlash that turned the nation to the right. Others mentioned the Soviet suppression of the Prague uprising, the Tet offensive in South Vietnam, and the Black Power salute at the Olympics in Mexico.

A few respondents took an analytical approach, saying, for example, "The year's events shattered the nation's hopes and marked society's transformation from opulence to uproar." A slightly different view came from another student, who mused on "free-loving, carefree, drug experimenting hippies … a socially involved generation unashamedly voicing their anti-war opinions. I also think of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez … and others who rendered tunes of an era." As that student may or may not have realized, Dylan, Baez, and others set the stage for today's edgy rappers.

No student commented on the events at Duke in 1968—particularly the vigil that followed King's assassination on April 5, 1968. Perhaps the most insightful analysis of the meaning of the vigil came only a few short months after the event. Trustee Charles B. Wade Jr. '38, speaking before the Jurisdictional Conference of the Methodist Church, as reported in The Chronicle that October, said: "Think ever so quietly with me for a moment and reflect with pride. What kind of administrative leadership, what kind of faculty and student leadership do you wish to support, one which wishes to riot over football or one which conducts a vigil over human injustice?"

That concern with human injustice, which reached a sort of pinnacle in 1968, has morphed from protest to civic engagement in programs like DukeEngage. Among today's prelaw students—always a large population at Duke—there is more interest in pro bono work, and many take positions in law firms that allow them to pursue that interest.

Institutionally, the protests for racial justice resulted in Duke's efforts to diversify the curriculum, the student body, and the faculty. Women on East Campus demanded the same freedoms enjoyed by men, along with curricular offerings that would highlight the role of women in history and society. Students also called for greater participatory democracy both in the nation and in college governance. The success of their efforts at Duke can be seen by the number of students now on various university committees as well as young alumni serving on the board of trustees.

Still, the legacy from 1968 was mixed. Some argue that the expanded and more inclusive curriculum has led to a decline in academic standards. Others say the culture of experimentation left the sad legacy of making drug use somewhat the norm among students. The free-love experiment turned out not to be so free: Today's students pay the price in terms not only of the fear of contracting diseases but also, in some cases, the reality. As one current student observed about 1968, "I can feel the beginning of the world in which I live, full of the freedoms that will soon bring anxieties and the promises that will only be partially realized." All too often these anxieties result in students questioning their identity and self-worth in a way that is counterproductive.

Rumble Fish, a 1983 film based on S.E. Hinton's novel reflecting on the youth of the 1950s, contains a line that well defines that generation: "To be young is not to express your own sense of self, but it is about learning to be what others have scripted for you."  In contrast, the greatest legacy from 1968 and its surrounding years for today's students may be that they have the opportunity in a more open, diverse, and rights-conscious society to write their own scripts.

— Gerald Lee Wilson Ph.D., B.D. '61, A.M. '67 is senior associate dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and teaches American history. Virginia S. Wilson '62, M.A.T. '63, Ph.D.'75 is dean of humanities at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. She also teaches in the Duke Education and M.A.T. programs.

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