This summer, the New York Times reported that plans are afoot to construct a performing arts center on the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival—a “shrine,” the paper suggested, “to the ’60s counterculture.” The state of New York has pledged to contribute $15 million of the $40 million cost. While many will grow misty-eyed remembering the upstate “love-in,” I’d like to write something in praise of the un-Woodstock generation, my generation.
Thirty-two years ago, I confess, I wasn’t conspicuously trying to save the world, not with peace, freedom, brotherhood, rock music, drugs, or sex. Which is another way of saying I was nowhere near the original feel-good lovefest in upstate New York that August.
In fact, the idea of my going there would have been laughable. After all, back then, middle age was clearly visible on the horizon. I had a wife, two school-age children, and a hefty mortgage. I was teaching English full time at Bayside High School and moonlighting evenings at Queensborough Community College. Summers were for painting the upstairs bedrooms and fighting the good, but losing, battle with crab grass. And, of course, there was always summer school when I was lucky enough to get the job. In August of ’69, I was in fact teaching, so there were also piles of papers to grade.
In general, the Woodstock revelers and all that they piously claimed to represent got all the ink and good press. And more than three decades of nostalgia and media hype have drawn a veil over the dropouts, the overdoses, and the parents’ broken hearts, leaving us with the image of a noble crusade. Being “against the war” obviously made up for a lot of sins.
Those of us who kept our noses to the classroom grindstone didn’t fare so well, whether we were against the war or not. Staying away from the barricades and the marches was widely construed as a de facto admission of guilt, of the ultimate crime of being in collusion with the supposedly evil establishment. And some of those who never set foot in our classrooms claimed for a certainty that my colleagues and I were doing a lousy job, probably deliberately. It became an article of faith in all too many circles that teachers and the system we worked in were failing a couple of generations of students. The kids in our classes who won Westinghouse awards or full scholarships to Cooper Union or MIT didn’t seem to count in the Great Cultural Reckoning.
In spite of all this, I’m proud to be a non-Woodstocker. As modestly as possible, I want to claim a modicum of heroic virtue for those of us who resisted the blandishments of the counterculture. While many of our fellow citizens indulged in intellectual and moral tantrums, my colleagues and I—who, admittedly, didn’t make for good copy or arresting visuals on the 6 o’clock news—slogged away at lesson plans and test papers and honestly tried to live up to the trust the community had put in us.
And, in a limited way, we kept alive the noble traditions of scholarly discourse. By prodding and questioning, we tried to motivate our students. We offered what knowledge we had, assigned homework and gave tests, and listened. We wanted students to think clearly about, and hopefully grow to love, what was best in our disciplines.
Our efforts, I believe, had a more lasting influence on those students than a generation’s worth of campus takeovers, acid trips, altruistic but often hollow rhetoric, and nonnegotiable demands. If serious intellectual life is still possible in this country, it is to a great extent due to the fact that, 30-plus years ago, many teachers were minding the store and refused to take the Woodstock path.
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Taking (Wood)Stock