Searching for Hippies
The seventies was a decade of revolutionary social change on a national level. One of the most obvious trends of this generational cultural shift was the emergence of youths in search of alternative lifestyles. In many ways, these hippies became the poster children of the era. Through music, spirituality, film, dress, protest, sexual choices, and drug experimentation, they sought to undermine the authority of “the establishment” and to formulate their identities based upon their own standards.
American college campuses provided the ideal setting for the growth of this brand of counter-culture. The young men and women populating undergraduate classrooms sought understanding. Professors encouraged them to ask questions and seek out meaningful answers. In the wake of economic trouble, political scandal, and Cold War conflict, a significant portion of youths in pursuit of higher education shifted their views towards liberalism and nonconformity (Lefkowitz-Horowitz 226). The protective “bubble” of college life fostered the growth of politically and socially radical hippies; these communities tolerated a greater degree of social experimentation than that of broader society. The hippie movement was in full swing by the mid-1960’s, and political activism reached its height as the decade ended. Violent anti-war protests, most notably the Kent State Shooting (May ’70), made clear the tension between the authority and the dissenters.
However, according to Helen Lefkowitz-Horowitz, the prominence of radical protest and anti-establishment groups has been exaggerated by academic scholarship and the popular media alike. She reports that in 1969 only twenty-eight percent of college students reported having ever participated in a political demonstration (223). Furthermore, as the seventies marched on and the Vietnam War waned, so did the frequency of protest rallies demanding social and political change. They may have been a minority group, but the impact of hippies was, indeed, significant. They made their presence known; hippie ideals pervaded popular culture throughout the seventies in music, television, literature, and dress.
The situation at Madison College did, to an extent, fit within this broader social organization. There was, in fact, a politically active, nonconformist student minority on our campus. The student body as a whole was aware of the issues that captured the nation’s attention, and at times they even participated in the conversation. Madison College may have been somewhat isolated in the conservative southern community of Harrisonburg, but certain aspects of counter-cultural trends did permeate this campus throughout the decade. Evidence of various forms of activism and experimentation exist in the historic records. By examining these documents, it becomes evident that there were Madison students engaged in the radical social changes that made the seventies so mad.
Lefkowitz Horowitz, Helen, Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.