The HFA Recital Hall on the UMM campus was alive with historical curiosity and exploration Tuesday night. A visiting scholar, Dr. W.J. Rorabaugh (in photo), was at the podium.
This was the annual O. Truman Driggs Distinguished Lecture, named for a fellow I remember making his rounds on campus and in the Morris community for many years. Driggs is in a higher hall of academe now. In his name and memory, via the memorial lecture, the fascinating subject of "Hippies in the 1960s" came to the forefront Tuesday.
The turnout at the HFA was especially high for an event of this type. One might have even felt challenged finding a seat, or said "excuse me" as you wedged past people to a seat away from the aisles. That's a sign of a most successful event.
I have attended several lectures of this type over the last four years (the duration of my unemployment to date) and I deem this one the best. All of these lecturers have the best possible credentials, but some are better than others at being truly engaging from the podium.
William Rorabaugh is the type of academic guy I would have loved to have as a teacher. I could have listened to him much longer. And indeed, extra time would have been needed to really cover the wide breadth of this subject matter.
For example, I don't even recall Dr. Rorabaugh touching on the Manson murders or Kent State and their ramifications for the turbulent youth culture. Rorabaugh, whose home is the University of Washington, took some questions after his formal talk and could have broadened his analysis more, but finally the "time clock" expired. Dr. Roland Guyotte was the "referee."
The audience retired to the outside hallway for refreshments and informal discussion.
Rorabaugh got a laugh early-on when he welcomed his audience, an audience which he observed included "hippies, I mean former hippies."
Us longer-of-tooth people were mixed in with the many University of Minnesota-Morris students who were appreciating hippie-dom from the distance of time.
I remember being at UMM's Edson Auditorium for a couple of bona fide Viet Nam War "moratoriums." So I observed "the real thing" most directly in terms of youth culture tumult. You might think those memories are exhibit 'A' of the type of thing that made up the heart of Rorabaugh's lecture. But not at all.
One of the most significant points made during the evening was that hippies and (anti-war) activists were not one and the same. Rorabaugh was quite determined to draw the line, although I would argue this line is at least blurred.
The activists weren't making a clear break from the conventions of established U.S. culture and politics, Rorabaugh maintained. Rather they were agitating, with great fervor I could stress, within the framework.
Hippies by contrast were dropouts from American society, at least the society as handed down by the generation that dealt with the Depression and World War Two. That older generation imposed too many restraints, they felt. Mainstream values were troubling.
Hippies weren't fond of this name they were given (i.e. "hippies") and preferred "the love generation," our speaker explained. He noted that "hippie" had its origin in the term "hipster" which grew out of African-American jazz clubs in the late 1940s.
There were variations on "hipster" until finally we saw "hippies" take hold in the 1960s. These on-the-edge young people lived out the anti-conformity ideas that the "beat"writers of the late 1950s wrote about, Rorabaugh told us.
We cannot say that hippies grew out of the Viet Nam War angst because "hippies were worldwide," he continued.
Indeed he made a good argument for that hippie/activist distinction but I might still protest a little.
He made a fascinating parallel between the countries that enjoyed post-World War Two prosperity, and the emergence of hippies. A baby boom occurred in those countries.
During Tuesday's question-and-answer, a middle-aged man in the audience (with a UMM background) said there was a time in West Central Minnesota when "every little town had a basketball, football (etc.) team."
Ah, we can remember the likes of the Graceville Shamrocks and Appleton Aces. It's a neat trivia contest to remember those names. It was a different era of course, because there were lots of young families with multiple children seemingly all over the place.
I believe the point that the questioner was making was that youth numbers were such that any prevailing trends they exhibited would be a big deal. That "punch" isn't there today.
The neighborhood where I grew up (and still live) is an exhibit of the prevailing trend. There was a gang of kids back then, giving the neighborhood definite personality (and a little notoriety sometimes), but today, well, I can't remember the last time a school bus even had to come by here.
This gentleman from the audience further said that because of this population drain here, UMM wouldn't even be built today. That's speculation but we can be most thankful it's here, and still apparently doing nicely.
I don't see the plunge in young people numbers as being nearly so threatening to higher education institutions, as I do the earthquake-like impact of the Internet and how people can get information without so much reliance on the bricks and mortar model.
Dr. Rorabaugh points out that hippies faded in the mid-1970s as mainstream U.S. culture became more accepting of them. Irony? Well, I suppose acceptance meant that a contrary statement vs. the established norms was no longer needed. That's what I took from Rorabaugh's statement.
But I can't help but think of the coincidence that the Viet Nam nightmare finally faded in the mid-1970s, albeit with scars.
Movies can be instructive, and I would cite "One on One," a sports movie, as being helpful in understanding how hippie-dom got retired to the dust bin. A quintessential on-campus hippie character was soundly rejected by his girlfriend, played by Annette O'Toole. Leading up to that, Robbie Benson, who played Annette's new love interest (and was clueless about hippie values), told off the hippie by saying "what about your uniform?"
The hippie had derided the Benson character for his basketball uniform which in the hippie's view was anachronistic. But it was the hippies, at least in their most extreme incarnation, that proved anachronistic.
I would argue that this generation moved forward with many enlightened values but without the more unnecessary or even revolting aspects of being hippies or quasi-hippies. ("You smell," the Benson character also chirped at one point.)
Dr. Rorabaugh covered lots of ground like television and its impact, sort of the "earthquake" of the 1950s. I have previously written about this and suggested that the marketing through TV, rather than the medium itself, helped give the boomers and their hippie element many of their recognizable traits.
"The visual images assaulted their senses," Rorabaugh said. "It rattled tradition. Boomers were able to learn about the whole world."
Rorabaugh gave us a portrait of hippies that was enlightening, describing them as "seekers." Continuing: "They knew consumption wasn't the answer. They were dissatisfied with the religious traditions of their parents. Those traditions seemed to them more crippling than enabling."
Hippies had their day most conspicuously and then moved on. They "cut their hair and got a job," to use Rorabaugh's words.
But that historical chapter ought to be weighed as future generations come on the scene, for all chapters leave their legacy of insights even if you have to scratch below the surface.
Rorabaugh is doing much to present it and give perspective.
O. Truman Driggs would be proud.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org