It has been 50 years since the tumultuous events of 1968, many of which shaped and continue to shape culture and politics in the United States. In recognition of that anniversary, one Blair history elective is taking a closer look at how the chaos and strife that occurred that year profoundly impacted the nation, creating a modern America fraught with distrust of government, generational divides, radicalization, and movements focused on civil rights and equality.
“In many ways, 1968 was a crisis of American identity,” said history department chair Jason Beck, who is leading students in their analysis of the Vietnam War, civil unrest, riots, student protests, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights movement and the election of Richard Nixon. “It was a momentous year in the creation of modern America, and all of these events had significant implications for how we view our country. Fifty years later, it is interesting to think about those issues in context of the world we live in today and to explore the echoes of this period of American history.”
As the fall semester winds to a close, students are hard at work on their capstone project: a research paper and presentation on what interested them most as they read fictional stories, news reports and historical analysis on the events of the day and discussed them with Mr. Beck in his Clinton 205 classroom. Project topics range from the 1968 student protest at Columbia University in New York City and the outcome of New York riots to black power protests at the Mexico City Olympics and media coverage of the Vietnam War.
Students have been most impressed by the many parallels between the events of 1968 and today. “We are connected to the things that came before us, and the past has implications for the way we live our lives, socially, politically and economically,” Mr. Beck said. “1968 is an important year that has broad impacts on our modern life.”
The notion that “everything is intertwined” is what Meredith O’Neill ’19 likes best about the course. Prior to enrolling in Mr. Beck’s class, she didn’t stop to think about the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement happening concurrently, but she has enjoyed learning about how the two influenced one another as they unfolded. Viewing the events of this period in context of one another and considering the relatively few sources of news available to the public at the time, Meredith decided to delve more deeply into how the media shaped public opinion about the Vietnam War in her capstone research project. “Today, social media, television and the Internet are things we use every day,” she explained. “Back then, television was a new way of conveying information across the country and the world, and the impact that had on people really interests me.”
The class’s targeted view of the year 1968 has allowed Meredith and her classmates the freedom to explore and analyze this period of history at a pace not possible in survey classes covering decades or even centuries of history over the course of a semester. But the timeliness of the issues at play in 1968 has been perhaps the biggest takeaway. “We are looking at pieces of history that are still very relevant to our everyday life, and there are people alive who we can hear from who lived through this,” Meredith said. “My grandparents are an example, and hearing about it from them really personalizes what we are learning.”