Three decades ago, fire broke out on the steps of Kent State University in an anti-Vietnam protest that injured 30 students and left four dead.
Today, UM students are learning about the tragic event and the preceding decade that witnessed numerous campus revolts, gave rise to the Beat generation, introduced the idea of gay liberation and feminism and initiated urban riots throughout the country.
The difference is that this time they are hearing the stories from the first-hand accounts of professors who lived through the era rather than reading about them in textbooks.
In the first of its kind, UM’s “The Sixties” interdisciplinary class brings an innovative style of teaching and a hodgepodge of perspectives to the classroom while teaching students about an era alien to many of them.
“Books make an official history of any event; people make an unofficial version,” said Professor Zack Bowen. “The totality of the human experience has a larger ring of authenticity than the official version.”
“There is a feeling of reality when listening to people who lived through it,” he added.
Last week, more than 200 students met for the Tuesday night class, while co-professors, Bowen and Donald Spivey, introduced the day’s topic: the ’50s and the post-World War II era. After their scholarly assessment, panelists gave their personal accounts, and then the floor was opened for a question-and-answer session.
“I thought it would be a phenomenal idea to have faculty who lived through the ’60s tell their stories,” said Bowen. “We’re trying to explain a culture with so many ramifications and so many issues to kids who just forget about it since they didn’t live through the era.”
While Bowen and Spivey had to cross through a lot of red tape because of the class size and lack of a permanent dean, the approximately 45 panelists from all schools and disciplines showed eagerness to participate and share their experiences, Spivey said.
“Something we all have in common is the university setting, and we’re sort of making that the focal point of the class,” said Bowen.
“We think we’re right on target with President Shalala’s vision of incorporating more interdisciplinary education throughout the University,” added Spivey.
The Sixties combines courses in English, History and American Studies and is open to sophomores and above.
Academic work is a part of the course, but it is done in innovative ways which include listening to music or watching movies, Bowen and Spivey said.
Upcoming topics include the sit-ins, Catch-22 and the counter-culture of the Beat generation.
Ultimately, Bowen’s goal is to “build a system so that other [students] take the same course” and other professors let the idea rub off and initiate other interdisciplinary courses at the University.