First As Tragedy, Then As Farce: The Cornell Takeover Redux At Stanford, 1989

by John McWhorter | April 24, 2009

Last Sunday was the fortieth anniversary of the famous Cornell Takeover, when black students took over a building demanding a black studies program among, other things. There were guns involved - first when white students attempted to wrest control of the building, then when the black protesters armed themselves in protection.

Debra Dickerson had some interesting insights on the psychology behind that episode in her last book, while Thomas Sowell, who was on the scene as a professor at the time, memorably recounts how it all looked through his eyes in his autobiography.

Opinions differ as to whether it was all worth it, but the Cornell takeover was the prototype for campus protests, now as regular an event on college campuses as fraternity rush, against "racist" administrations since. I was a spectator for the one at Stanford twenty years after Cornell's (no guns this time).

I certainly understand that there are times when protest is what needs to happen. However, it was never quite clear to me (or quite a few others) at Stanford that spring that the issues at hand merited the methods. It also seemed that the protesters knew it deep down. My recollections of a day that has been otherwise largely lost to history beyond archives in Palo Alto are here.

I don't think any of those undergraduates were consciously acting out. Nor did they hurt anything or anybody in the long run. As such, if it had been more recently I would just keep my thoughts to myself. But it was 20 years ago now; the participants are now accomplished and forty-ish with kids of their own. The event is now history indeed - and indicative in one simple question: what were they so happy about???

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