Critical ThinkingCultureHigher Education

Towards a Campus Activism Reading List

Last month, I was reading an article written by (or at least attributed to) the Canadian columnist Margaret Wente entitled “The radicals have taken over: Academic extremism comes to Canada.” It’s a fairly standard take down of campus anti-racist, feminist and pro-LGBTQ politics, but I was interested in how it conflated all that with Marxism and how it suggested that this is a new phenomenon. This got me thinking: maybe the reason why we such see such panic over “P.C. culture” (or whatever you want to call it) is because we have lost touch with the history of campus activism. This, in turn, leads to a poor vocabulary when it comes to criticizing contemporary student radicals (something that I myself very rarely feel the urge to do, but many columnists make their living off of it). In the interests of getting both supporters and critics on the same page, and in the spirit of encouraging dialogue, here (in no particular order) are some books (and one movie) that are worth reading (and watching) for their nuanced looks at campus activism.


Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album (1995)

Like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a book that plays a huge role in Kureishi’s novel, this story is about Muslim newcomers to Britain torn between Britain’s secular culture and the desire to retain a unique identity through religion. The protagonist’s fixation with a charismatic but increasingly extreme Muslim leader (who is genuinely helpful to his flock) will probably confound and irritate most secular readers. Despite this—actually, because of this—it is an eye-opening account of “identity politics” in a working-class London college in the eighties. My favourite character is the hard-left, secular professor who is unable to stand up for himself in his career and personal life, and ends up enabling the worst instincts of the charismatic religious leader. The novel takes for granted that Thatcher is bad and that drugs are good (at least in moderation), and is clearly targeted at the Left. But the Left may not always like what it has to say!

Thomas Pynchon, Vineland (1990)

This book wasn’t what I thought it would be about. But though I was disappointed not to find a story about North American Vikings, I was pleasantly surprised to find what feels like the novelization of the movie that would have resulted if Quentin Tarantino directed The Big Lebowski. We begin with the lovable stoner Zoyd Wheeler, trying to do right by his daughter Prairie, who looks at her father with the chagrin that many 80s teenagers must have looked at former hippies. But when anti-drug agents virtually invade the pleasant town of Vineland, California, Zoyd and Prairie are forced to separate and flee. During her flight, Prairie learns about her mother’s history in a drug-fueled hippy takeover of a university, and how it led to the Reaganite conquest of Vineland decades later. The youth of today would do well to learn about Prairie’s family, too, not in the least because it does not hesitate to skewer all sides, does not offer any illusory solutions, and yet does not skimp on compassion. Plus, a Ninja Death Touch plays a key role.

J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (1961)

This book is actually a short story and a novella. The novella addresses what happened in the short story. That story is Franny’s. Franny is a sharp undergrad who, like Holden Caulfield before her, is sick and tired of society’s phonies. She condemns the materialistic status-seekers among her and recognizes that the backlash offered by “bohemians” (“hippy” being a concept still in its infancy in 1961) is just another form of conformity. She has a nervous breakdown during the weekend of a big college game, scares away her boyfriend, and goes back home to recuperate. In the novella that follows we learn that she has turned to religion, clutching an unorthodox Christian book and reciting its mysterious prayer under her breath. Much of the rest of the book is her more world-weary brother Zooey giving some advice. That doesn’t sound very exciting (or feminist!), but Zooey’s point is worth reading. Zooey is sympathetic to Franny’s anti-phony stance, but is concerned that her obsession with the prayer is bordering on a sort of extremism. His advice, put simply, is that nobody is perfect, and using esoteric knowledge against other people is dangerous.

Although the themes are more spiritual than political, Franny believing herself to be alone in seeing the evils of the world does remind me of the myopia of the worst activists (the ones who never fail to get written about in the conservative press). If we translate Zooey’s message to activism, we get a call for a politics that is less ideologically rigid, but more engaged, if patient. Reading Franny and Zooey, I couldn’t avoid thinking that it hasn’t aged a day. Except chain-smoking is way down. Progress!

Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)

The protagonists of this famous novel by Eco (one of 2016’s many celebrity victims—R.I.P.) are publishers who specialize in books about the occult and conspiracy theories. However, just as Cosmo Kramer turned his book on coffee tables into a coffee table itself, so these publishers devise their own conspiracy while producing books about conspiracies. So what’s the connection to the academic left? Well, the publishers are veterans of 70s student activism, and it continues to haunt them in various ways. It’s not hard to see that there is a connection between the wide-eyed conspiracists and the often-overzealous activists who are quick to label acquaintances rightists and fascists. Whether bourgeois occultist, student radical, or anything else, we all face the danger of getting too caught up in our own prejudices.

Gilbert Adair (Writer) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Director), The Dreamers (2003)

This film is set during the 1968 Paris student riots—one of the most significant events in Western student activism. The story is about a young French brother and sister who take an American exchange student, and fellow film buff, under their wing. He stays with them in their apartment when their parents go on a trip. The three spend their days mooching off said parents while watching films, having sex, talking left politics, and not going to school. The American is softer and certainly more inclined to pacifism than the siblings, and ultimately, this is the wedge between the three of them. The siblings join the riots, but the American falls back, wary of the violence. Are the siblings finally taking a step towards maturity and doing something with their lives, or is participating in the most violent aspects of the riots an extension of their decadence?

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

Although phrases like “The definitive account of the hippies” are thrown around describing this nonfiction book, it’s specifically about Ken Kesey, a famous novelist in his own right, and (what can only be described as) his followers. Wolfe recounts the adventures of “The Merry Pranksters” as they travel the United States documenting their own antics, which frequently involves the consumption and distribution of LSD. They certainly are hippies but they have no connection to academia, so they might be an odd choice for this list. But I want to include this book because of one scene in particular. Kesey gets invited to speak at an anti-Vietnam War protest on a university campus. But instead of giving a speech, he gives a sort of performance that mocks the sincerity and the (to Kesey’s eyes) ideological rigidity of the protestors. He saps the enthusiasm of the meeting and the subsequent march suffers as a result.

What to make of this? The most obvious interpretation is that Kesey is acting like an irresponsible acidhead. More generously: Kesey in this scene reminds me of left-of-center writers who attack campus activism with dismissive contempt, while still remaining on the left (at least a little bit). If so, the question becomes: does he have a point? Probably not, but it does make me wonder what Jonathan Chait would be like on acid.

Nancy Huston, Nord Perdu suivi de Douze France (1999)

Huston’s Nord Perdu (Lost North) is a delightful exploration of Canadian identity (or the lack thereof), but I actually want to restrict my thoughts to one of the “Douze France” (Twelve thoughts on France, basically). Huston, an anglophone Canadian, writes about joining the student community in France and being surprised that everyone has a political identity to which they firmly, yet casually, adhere. Huston would meet fellow students in a bar who would say something along the lines of (I paraphrase from memory) “Gaston here, he is Marxist-Leninist, and this is Phillipe; he is Trots.” In other words, specific political identity is part of the social culture of the students. But the political identities do not cause social disruption among the students—they take the place soccer team loyalties might in another social circle.

A cynic might say that political identities playing such a casual role drains them of their revolutionary potential. But I think the essay is a reminder that subcultures form their own logic, and what might seem like extremism to an outsider has a more banal meaning to an insider.

Hugh MacLennan, The Watch that Ends the Night (1958)

Okay, admittedly the academic setting, while very present, is not crucial to the story. Nonetheless, it’s a sympathetic examination of how leftist activism intersects with personal drama, love, and career. So many actions committed under the guise of activism (of all stripes, including skepticism) actually have personal motivations. An activist might want more social standing among their colleagues, or might be working out negative feelings over a breakup through a protest. One character in this novel is particularly naive on this point, believing that he can get away with pure activism while ignoring the social consequences his actions have on those close to him. And yet, this character’s courage and determination has a lot to teach the other characters in their heavy personal struggles.


Now, these books mostly concern students protesting war and unjust economic conditions, not the feminist and anti-racist politics that infuriate so many commentators today. Many critics would probably point to the 60s and 70s as a time when protestors were engaged with “real” issues, unlike the “special snowflake” generation. To these hypothetical critics I would say three things. First, get your head out of your asses, you jerkwads. Second, that distinction is lost on many other critics, such as Wente, cited above. Third, what we can learn about the successes and mistakes of previous generations is still applicable today.

Another possible objection: these books are just some I happened across and read, and fairly recently at that. As such, the list is pretty arbitrary. It’s also admittedly dude-centric. What else makes good reading on campus activism? Let me know in the comments!

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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