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Students and the Educational System During the 1960s

A key precursor of the student protest movement of the 1960s was the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, permanently residing in the United States during the 1930s, after the rise of National Socialism in Germany. According to Marcuse, modern industrial societies are only apparently democratic:

“A comfortable, smooth, reasonable democratic  unfreedom prevails  in advanced industrial civilization,” and people  are not free”  (1).

The student protest movement arose in the second half of the 1960s, and a lot of students adopted a polemical stance against schools and Universities. Young people attacked   methods and contents for teaching, because they were deemed inadequate compared with their needs.  Besides, according to the protesters of the 1960s, schools were also accused of being conformist and of accustoming students to be passive auditors.

So in Tom Fawthrop’s essay (1969) we read:

“Last year 18 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women studying at British universities failed to complete their courses. At other further-education establishments the failure rate was 30 per cent for men and 25 per cent for women in the same year. These are the facts of failure in higher education today. Why is there this enormous wastage rate?”

“One common argument is that such students did not meet the required standards, and thus were justly failed. But when some universities have 30 per cent failure rates and others 3 per cent rates, the failure from one institution would clearly have been a success at another. The huge fluctuations between various failure rates indicate one thing clearly: that the existing system of examinations is a random process of selection.”

“Now most discussion of examinations has concentrated on the issue of what type of test to set the student. But the more pertinent question is: a test of what? So often educational aims are assessed in terms of examinations instead of examinations being assessed in terms of aims; the assessment system at present dominates the academic community. Examinations not only define for the student what his course is about, but further, what education itself is concerned with. It would be more rational if first the aims of a university education were defined, and an assessment system subsequently designed to coincide with these objectives.”

“The priority of the teachers is generally to ‘get them through’, of the taught ‘to get through’: the crammers cram as the final hour approaches Nervous breakdowns occur […]: all students, whether winners or losers, are subjected to the sale strains. And after it all, there is the final irony: that the individual student is held responsible if he fails, and not the system with its methods, teachers and advocates.”

“However lightly authority is imposed in the lecture room or tutorial, in the examination hall it is all-powerful. The exam is taken, and the student’s academic trial is over […] Examinations are […] the control center for the manipulation of the lives of the students.”

Among the more popular slogans during the Paris of May 1968 was Give in a little, and you’ll capitulate a lot, which symbolically alluded to the danger of being sucked into the wheels of consumerism. My impression is that, after both a lot of effort, and a lot of money,  the students have capitulated (a lot).  We have today in Europe two types (of graduated): a lot for the home market, the other for export.

That’s the lot.



1)      Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man.  Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, New York, Routledge Classics, 2002, (First Edition, 1964) p. 3.

2)      Tom Fawthrop, “Education or Examination?,” in Student Power, Problems, Diagnosis, Action, Edited by A. Cockburn & R. Blackburn, Penguin Books (and New Left Review), 1969,  pp. 99-102.





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