Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


First "teach-in" held at University of Michigan: New tool for public education is born

On 24 March 1965, an original combination of public education and non-violent protest was born when the first “teach-in” was held in Ann Arbour at the University of Michigan. This “teach-in” was the first major university-based anti-war demonstration in the United States and played a crucial role in forging the anti-war movement that persevered throughout the period of American intervention in Vietnam. Its goals were both educative and rebellious: the organizers of the teach-in believed that dissenting education could be a tool for social justice. The teach-in movement was part of a tumultuous decade of great social and political change and must be understood in the context of this history. Before examining the teach-in project and its impact, I will offer a brief look at the civil rights and free speech movements that gave shape to the teach-in protests of 1965.


The first large-scale student movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was formed in 1960 on the University of Michigan campus. By 1962, SDS had become a household name across the United States with the writing of its manifesto, The Port Huron Statement. The statement condemned the systemic racism and inequality of the United States and embraced participatory democracy as a political process that would realize civil rights and egalitarianism (The Port Huron Statement in Bloom, 1995: 61-73). The SDS was originally formed as a response to the civil rights movement, and early SDS activities focused on aiding the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the southern United States. Members of the Students for a Democratic Society and other white university students from the northern states travelled to Mississippi in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 to work in solidarity with black youths, engaging in education campaigns and sit-ins to protest segregation. SDS simultaneously initiated Education Research and Action Projects in northern cities to address poverty and ghettoization closer to home. These early experiences in civic engagement and participatory action gave shape to the emerging student movement in universities across the country. 


The Freedom Summer of 1964 had a tremendous impact on the burgeoning youth movement. Even those who did not participate watched events unfold on their television screens and many joined solidarity movements in their hometowns. The fall semester of 1964 saw the application of civil rights practices to university campuses, beginning at University of California, Berkley and spreading nation-wide. The dean of Berkley, fearful of student agitation over the civil rights movement and the strict in loco parentis regulations of the university, forbade the promotion of non-academic issues on campus. Students who violated the ban were labelled followers of the “Castro-Mao Tse Tung line of communism” (Anderson, 1999: 57) by the university administration and faced severe penalties. This only served to fuel the fire of student unrest: the free speech movement was born. Thousands of students demonstrated against the university regulations, singing and chanting mantras of the civil rights movement as police entered the campus and began mass arrests. This was the first major student revolt of the 1960s and it spread to campuses from Texas to Syracuse. University students began to understand that political and social change was possible through large-scale, educative demonstrations. This would become an important lesson as resistance to the war in Vietnam grew in the following year.

In early 1965, American president Lyndon Johnson changed tactics in the now year-old American military intervention in Vietnam. US troops had been in Southeast Asia nominally to “advise” the South Vietnamese army, but a perceived lack of success in this project led to an escalation of troop involvement. Soldiers were given permission to carry out combat missions against the communist north, aided by the arrival of several thousand Marines and the beginning of a massive air strike campaign, “Operation Rolling Thunder”.  This change in policy went unnoticed across most of American society, which continued to support US military intervention in the years to follow. At the University of Michigan, however, the SDS and a number of sympathetic faculty members decided it was time for a large-scale campus demonstration to oppose the war in Vietnam.

On 11 March of 1965, a group of University of Michigan faculty met to discuss the best methods for collective protest against the war. William Gamson, a sociology professor at the university, proposed a one-day moratorium on classes to allow for teaching and learning about the Vietnam War. The idea was borrowed from Gamson’s experience in the Freedom Schools that had operated as part of the civil rights movement: the matching of a protest action with a constructive, educative method (Gamson, 1991:29). Many faculty members present were wary of the risks they faced by participating in a moratorium, citing that the university would have the grounds to fire them for refusing to work. At a subsequent meeting, a new idea was proposed that would maintain emphasis on learning about the war without a disruption of classes: a “teach-in”. Despite the misgivings of some who preferred the more radical action of a moratorium (Gamson, 1991: 32), the idea of the teach-in was adopted with 24 March set as the date of action.

The teach-in was planned as an overnight affair, beginning in the evening after classes had finished and continuing until early the next morning. Gamson (1991:32) described the idea as a compromise between open protest and business-as-usual: “instead of a work moratorium, we would stage a sleep moratorium. By staying up all night to talk about Vietnam, we were certainly abandoning business as usual”. Because the teach-in would not disrupt the running of the university, and because it was framed as an educational exercise, it received the endorsement of university administrators and the politically-divided student body. Historian Charles DeBenedetti (1990: 108) argued that the teach-in was an effective act of resistance because it “was a protest rather than a debate; and yet it was also a shrewd means of energizing the university without disrupting it.”

The concept of the teach-in was borrowed from the “sit-in” tactic of non-violent resistance used by the SNCC. In the latter form of protest, black youths would sit at lunch counters and other sites labelled “whites only” as an act of defiance against racial segregation. That the early anti-war movement borrowed method and terminology from civil rights activists served to unite both movements as arms in the same struggle against oppression and violence in the United States. As acts of protest, the sit-in and teach-in had a distinctly educative aim: they were intended to highlight injustice in political policy, and to do so in a very public forum in order to draw attention to their causes on a nation-wide scale.

Those who organized the teach-in wanted to make sure that a variety of issues, tactics and theories were given space in order to allow for a dynamic and inclusive exploration of the war and how to stop it (Gamson, 1991: 32). The schedule of events included lectures, debates, film viewings, musical performances and workshops, with a large rally to finish off the event the following morning. Many of the workshops and discussions were led by SDS members and included topics such as the military-industrial complex and the role of the university, U.S. intervention in the Third World, understanding cold war rhetoric, and mechanisms for changing U.S. foreign policy. One of the films showed that night was made by the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and had been smuggled into the country through SDS channels. This signalled the importance placed on the US anti-war movement by the Vietnamese.

Three thousand students, teachers and members of the public participated in this first teach-in. Despite two bomb threats that drove participants outside to sub-freezing temperatures, as well as the presence of some hecklers who shouted pro-war slogans at the crowd, the mood was calm and no violent incidents occurred. Arnold Kaufman, a political philosopher interested in participatory democracy, facilitated the final session. Although only 500 or so participants remained for this 6:00 am session, it has been recounted as the most powerful and important of the entire event (DeBenedetti, 1990: 108; Menashe and Rodosh, 1967: 11). Kaufman invited students to de-brief on the teach-in experience by speaking about what they had learned. Students didn’t talk about the war in Vietnam or the foreign policy of the US government: they spoke about the university climate and the teach-in as an exercise in democracy. One freshman described it as “outside of ordinary time and ordinary structures. . . . I'd never been in anything like that before. It was like a classroom, only one that worked, with students speaking, or people in the audience speaking, and debating issues” (Susan Harding quoted in Gamson, 1991: 34).

The teach-in method for anti-war protest quickly spread to other campuses. The following day, a similar event was held at Columbia University. Within a week, 35 schools had held teach-ins of their own. By the end of the academic year, teach-ins against the war had been held at 120 university campuses across the United States. It was not just anti-war protesters, however, who adopted the teach-in method of educational protest. At University of Wisconsin, a pro-war teach-in drew the support of 6000 students. At Yale University, fully one-quarter of the student body participated in pro-war teach-ins and signed a letter in support of President Johnson. The continued support for the Vietnam War among the majority of American University students led many to question the impact of the teach-in movement (DeBenedetti, 1990: 108).

Though the teach-in movement spread quickly, it also died rather quickly. In May of 1965, a national teach-in in Washington received mixed reviews. McGeorge Bundy, the national security advisor, failed to appear for his scheduled address. Many within the movement had been against giving Bundy a forum to preach about the threat of communism and were pleased that he neglected to show. But the fact that he had been invited at all signalled that the atmosphere of the teach-in movement was drifting away from anti-war protest and closer to a two-sided debate. Many student groups, the SDS among them, decried the teach-ins as too pro-establishment. To be fair, the teach-in movement was always more of a liberal than a radical project, couched in the language of rational deliberation. This is why university administrators and national media were generally sympathetic to its methods and goals (Menashe and Rodosh, 1967).  By the beginning of the 1965-66 academic year, however, there were few student groups still discussing the teach-in method of protest. The original leaders of the teach-in movement met at University of Michigan in September to try to reinvigorate the program. They were unable to reach consensus about where the anti-war movement was headed and how it should get there. The teach-in project lapsed. Radicals felt it was too conservative a program and moderates turned away from the academic forum altogether (DeBenedetti, 1990: 124).

As a tool to foster anti-war sentiment, both within and outside American universities, the teach-in project undeniably had some positive effect. “It made the wisdom of the Vietnam war seem arguable at a time when there had been far too little argument… but whenever dialogue fails to convince outsiders, men of deep moral conviction are apt to turn away from it, either in anger or in sad disgust” (Veysey, 1969: 100). Perhaps the teach-ins can be understood as an example of enlightenment without engagement. Those who participated in, or followed the media coverage of, the teach-in movement were given the opportunity to teach and to learn about American intervention in Vietnam. What they were unable to do was to engage with those who supported the war in order to bring mass public opinion on to the side of peace. With the majority of America supporting the war, the teach-ins could not have any direct impact on state policy. This should not be surprising: the teach-ins were only one method of protest in the anti-war movement and by themselves could not be expected to impact global power politics. The legacy of the teach-in is best understood in the context of the anti-war movement as a whole.

The teach-in was a critical moment in the early stages of the anti-war movement. It allowed students, faculty and members of the general public that identified themselves with the movement to form a cohesive unit with organizational capacity. According the Gamson (1991: 42), many students and teachers who were not previously involved in anti-war activism were drawn in because of the teach-ins. Faculty joined forces with SDS students over a common cause, thus strengthening and expanding the movement. The teach-ins served to provide anti-war activists with what Gamson terms “movement identity”, a requisite for sustainability in social movements (Gamson, 1991). This collective identity allowed for the development of a coherent and nation-wide anti-war movement that has had a powerful effect on American policy and history.

The organizational structure of the teach-in has left a significant legacy on educational social activist movements. As an example of participatory and democratic learning, the teach-in project was innovative. Many student participants reflected that it was the first time they had broken away from the pattern of dominance in classrooms and been invited to share opinions and debate political issues as equals to their professors. The explicit lesson is that learning for social change must itself be a model for social change. This lesson has outlived the history and struggle of the Vietnam War. Teach-ins continue to be used as a pedagogical tool for learning about complex social justice issues. What is planned to be the largest teach-in in US history will occur on 1000 campuses nation-wide on 31 January, 2008. This national teach-in, named “Focus the Nation” will center on solutions to global warming ( Like its predecessor at University of Michigan, this teach-in faces enormous challenges in alerting participants and society in general about human impacts on the environment. Its success will be measured in part by its ability to forge a cohesive movement identity that will be tenacious in its demands for environmental justice.



Anderson, Terry. (1999). The Sixties. New York: Longman Inc.

DeBenedetti, Charles. (1990). An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the

      Vietnam Era. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Gamson, William. (1991). “Commitment and Agency in Social Movements.”

      Sociological Forum, Vol. 6, No. 1, 27-50.

Menashe, Louis and Ronald Radosh, eds. (1967). Teach-Ins: U. S. A., Reports, Opinions,

      Documents. New York: Praeger.

“The Port Huron Statement.” (1960). in Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines, eds. Takin’

       it to the Streets: A Sixties Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Veysey, Laurence R. (1969).  “Book Review: Teach-Ins: U. S. A., Reports, Opinions,

      Documents.” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 99-101.


Prepared by Bronwen Magrath, OISE/UT, November 2007

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