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How Culture Changes: Looking Back at The Meanings of May - Paris 1968 - Vera L. Zolberg, New School for Social Research

At its best, sociology is an ongoing conversation in which ideas are exchanged among scholars that sometimes lead to unexpected developments in knowledge. This is what occurred to me a year after re-reading a statement by Elizabeth Long on "Stories as Models," in which she proposed ways in which anecdotes and small stories may serve sociologists to introduce their work or exemplify a point. These, she argues, are actually "carriers of theory that do important cognitive work to create or revise conceptual categories and innovate theoretical models or frames." She has gone on to develop her ideas in fruitful ways, and I wish to pursue her suggestions in my field of interest, the sociology of collective memory.

This is a domain that has become popular largely, I believe, because it provides opportunities for us to delve deeply into history, identity, any many other issues of social construction. It is one, however, in which events have a habit of outweighing theoretical maturity. In reading Long I realized that the kinds of personal experiences that she calls upon are often hidden by scholars as lacking in scientific legitimacy and, I confess that I had a similar reaction when first reading Maurice Halbwachs' seminal works, in which he evokes his own memories, as well as literary works (Halbwachs 1980; 1992).1 Whereas anthropologists and postmodern analysts more generally have opened up these black boxes (Geertz 1995), I am now trying to overcome my earlier prejudices and will use the personal "stories" to help reveal a way of supporting the guidance that Long provides.
For those of us who were living in France during the year that seemed destined to mark the world as no other had done, it is hard to believe that four decades have passed since so much turmoil, promise, and disenchantment could have been jammed into so brief a moment. The impact of that era has seemingly been overshadowed by even more important events that will, no doubt, produce some of their own elations or disillusionments, but the "alumni" of that moment in Paris, as the late film maker, Jean Rouch, who lived through it as well, put it, were permanently marked, and would persist in viewing it as a formative utopian instant for themselves and for their world. Judging from the numerous attempts to assess the impact of the month, year, season - the time frame varies, depending upon how those events played out in different places around the globe - Rouch was correct in this early intuition that it has marked us, serving as a badge of kinship akin to that of a "graduating class," members of which sense a fictive community even if their experience took place in very different sites and nations, under divergent levels of seriousness, ranging from mere discomfort to terrible risk.

These observations were brought to my attention when earlier this year I was invited to participate in just such an exercise in "collective memory" at my university, under the title "Moments of Madness."2 Other participants were members of the "1968 graduating class" with experience in Eastern Europe (Poland and Czechoslovakia), Paris, as well as faculty or students from a number of American universities. The audience of "alumni" like ourselves, forty years older, were eager to share their own experiences; but the majority were students, for whom the recollections were part of the lore, sometimes nostalgia, and occasional attempts at scholarly analysis as we struggled to grasp the temps perdu.

For Americans like myself, to be within walking distance of the Sorbonne, the Théâtre de l'Odéon, or the barricades of the Boulevard St. Michel, it seemed as if a new revolution might be in the works. On the other hand, having been invited to dinner by French friends, who insisted that their sons, university students, join us, we could not help feeling a certain degree of skepticism. How could we not, given that the meal was exquisite, the young men fashionably dressed in handsome tweed suit coats with suede elbow patches and flannel trousers (that era's "preppy" style), and upon leaving after having their dessert and espresso, promised their parents to be home before the C.R.S. (national police) started to throw tear gas canisters in their vicinity.

Our impression was further supported when, on another evening, at the Grande Amphithéâtre of the Sorbonne, we discovered that it was not only our friends' sons who dressed fashionably, but nearly everyone else - in what seemed to be the university students' uniform. In this immensely crowded setting, the degree of politesse was astonishing. It seemed as if every second phrase uttered was on the order of "Pardon monsieur; pardon madame." It was different for the presiders on stage, however, almost as if Goffman's front stage and back stage were reversed. The public face presented by the organizers was exemplified as they entertained motions to paint over the overbearing, allegorical mural of Puvis de Chavanne (a motion that I and some others would gladly have seconded), but it was voted down (if anyone was counting) (Goffman 1963).
More impressively, however, was the introduction by the presider of a man from the audience who looked different from the university students. This, announced the presider, was "un ouvrier," wearing a bulky brown leather jacket (clearly NOT an elegant Italian name brand) over his muscular frame. The audience seemed stunned into momentary silence; then burst into enthusiastic applause. Had they never seen a worker before? Bourdieu's analysis of habitus would have been appropriate in that instance (1984 [1979]). These observations, I realized, helped me make sense of the more conventional analysis of the structure of the French state, the educational institution, and the system of inequality as adumbrated by Bourdieu (1964).

While I was in Paris, however, the participants at our symposium, especially those from Eastern/Central Europe, had experienced a very different 1968: the Prague Spring and its hopes for a humanistic communism, shattered by the invasion of Soviet tanks in August; the disquieting news from the United States, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, followed not long after by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. News filtered as well from the Mexican government's assault and murder of perhaps over a hundred student demonstrators, and much other protest and repression around the world. By comparison, I began to think of the Parisian events as relatively minor - at best, problems of "the society of managed consumerism" - as Jean-Luc Godard showed in his films of that era, such as Weekend. But there was much more to it than could be expressed in something other than a flippant consumerism. What happened in France in 1968 had been brewing for more than a little time, with roots in the nineteenth century and much earlier if we think of the deeply centralized structure of the state. Not surprisingly, its most immediate causes are found in the structures of the institutions central to French political, economic, demographic, cultural and social organization.
What came to be called "the events of May" began on the troubled campus at a suburb of Paris called Nanterre, spread to the Latin Quarter of Paris, and from there gained much of France, flowing from the educational sphere into the realms of economic and political activity. During this period, following the lead of university students, almost every organized group in France voiced its demands simultaneously; potential groups suddenly were organized, adding their clamor to the general din; authority vacillated; the impact of demonstrations mounted; and finally while some groups retreated from the fray altogether, others settled down at the bargaining table to await their turn to negotiate.

Given the centrality of the educational institution to the emergence of the particular "moments of madness" in 1968, it seems logical to see its features - how it resembled those of other nations and what was particular to France. Serious trouble developed from 1963 on when the Gaullist government boldly decided to revamp what they saw as an outdated educational system. It had remained essentially unchanged since its design in the nineteenth century, during the early years of the Third Republic to suit that regime's specific civilian and military manpower needs and to provide appropriate patterns of political socialization.
In an even longer French tradition that continues despite decades of political rhetoric to the contrary, education was centralized in policy and its bureaucratic implementation. Only now It was intended to foster commitment to Republicanism by institutionalizing meritocratic access to upper and middle positions, as well as bolster secularism in the dominant culture. But immediately after World War I, democratic critics started to question the authoritarianism of its methods and the advantages it gave to the bourgeoisie. While some reforms in elementary schools had been instituted earlier by the Popular Front government, the post primary level remained fairly untouched. Despite a variety of different kinds of secondary schools, only one kind, the lycée led to the university. But gaining access to it was not automatic. Admission was determined early: as in England's 11+ examinations, in France at about the same age, all school children had to pass the "entrée en sixième" examination. Generally, by age 11 one's educational future was determined - either a form of terminal high school or the university bound lycée. The idea had been meritocratic, but It turned out to be a barrier to entry into academic secondary school education. Another barrier was raised by the requirement of having to have studied Latin from early post primary entry, but only the lycée provided classical languages. Truly, this was not a system for "late bloomers," and the filtering process continued at later levels as well.
Only shortly before the second world war and immediately after the Liberation were serious proposals for reform introduced. In particular, democratic reformers tried to eliminate the highly esteemed Latin as the sine qua non for admission to the lycée and subsequently to the university. Those parents who could afford it provided their children with Latin as early as age 8, mostly by private tutoring or by enrolment in fee-paying classes, rather than free municipal elementary schools that did not offer it. Faculty members who opposed modernization used their influence to maintain separate schools and/or separate tracks within the new, post-war common high schools. But even the small changes that were instituted continued to reproduce similar results. Students of higher status parents were far more likely to be "advised" (oriented) into academic tracks and lower status students into terminal post primary schooling. On top of this, post World War II France's demography was changing in unforeseen ways. As the first western country to have reached "zero-population growth" in the nineteenth century, for the first time in nearly a century the birthrate rose dramatically, leading to overcrowding at every educational level in succession. The highly selective educational system could not stem the numbers. At the university students became an anonymous mass to remote professors. Yet the total student body in the mid-1960s represented only 5 percent of the university age cohort; and of those in the university fewer than 10 percent were worker' s children. Through a system of yearly examinations, most of them failed to pass exams for the more desirable faculties, such as medicine or law, or were "advised" into preparation for dead end employment - "the Faculty of Letters" and the least prestigious was sociology (Zolberg and Zolberg 1969).

Meanwhile, concerned about criticism of France's economic and technical backwardness compared to other nations, DeGaulle's Fifth Republic constructed more school buildings, hired more staff, and diverted students into other tracks than academic. But these responses contributed to the creation of new critical situations which provided a direct link to the events of May.
Nanterre was one of these reform ideas gone wrong. Although it was supposed to be a campus similar to those in the United States, and instead of the huge amphitheatres of the Sorbonne, moderate size class rooms were built, yet library and recreational facilities were put on hold. At the time a virtual shanty-town on the outskirts of Paris, it immediately became overcrowded, drawing many of its students not from Nanterre's working class residents, but from Paris itself; most of its faculty members commuted from Paris, generally did not bring their families and spent as little time there as possible. Faculty recruitment remained largely traditional, so that there was a chronic shortage of qualified instructors, leaving most of the teaching in the hands of low level adjuncts -- "assistants."
Unlike American teaching assistants, for whom this was a temporary position, in France it was a marginalized occupation that could last for a very long time, depending upon funding provided for new positions. Poor working conditions led to union organizing, some founded in protest against the Algerian War, but many also demanded improvements in the status of these marginalized assistants. Starting with bread and butter issues, eventually their organizations became a vanguard of the wave of opposition to the Fifth Republic's university reform, its authoritarian imposition with no consultation of those affected - faculty, students, their families - led the syndicates (unions) to denounce the technocratic orientation of the proposals, many inspired by American university developments - the "multiversity" attempt at Berkeley, for example -- as an adaptation of the university to the needs of capitalist society. This theme, elaborated simultaneously by the educational specialists of the Communist Party provided a framework which transformed debate over the reforms into a genuine ideological struggle over the future of French society.

It would be a mistake to think that all the assistants and students were united - in fact they became fragmented over the next couple of years - including CPF members who split into orthodox elements challenged by "Italians," "Cubans," "Maoists" and Socialists, who split into Trotskyite and Anarchist groups. Any or all of them came to denounce American policies in Vietnam, including some attacks on American establishments off campus. They seemed on the verge of clashing with the Occident group a pro-colonialist faction which had its origins in the Algerian War, and had since come to defend "traditional French institutions" and American foreign policy. It was probably the clashes within these groups that led the rector of the Sorbonne to call in the Paris police on May 3, 1968, a decision that can be viewed as the dramatic, but not unlikely climax of processes generated by existing institutional structures within the French educational system.

In the aftermath of the 1968 events, numerous commissions were set up to diagnose the problematic nature of institutions and patterns. The first and most striking of the findings was to try to alleviate the extreme selectivity of access to higher education brought about in part by institutional structures. The immediate solution offered made headlines in every newspaper in France: NO LATIN BEFORE THE 3rd YEAR OF SECONDARY SCHOOL.

My analysis does not account for the phenomenon of this extraordinary period in the world, or even in France, but it suggests that a multiplicity of institutional, demographic, political, historical and cultural patterns need to be marshaled in order to pinpoint the structures and processes that produce certain events. But it is important as well to bring to bear the increasing importance of technology of communication, the importance of media in conveying the responses of people to the particular set of patterns and structures they face. In addition to such study, the researcher's on-site observation and openness to the anecdotal can help us to understand the events that otherwise may have seemed either obvious or mysterious to those who lived through them.

Selected References

Bourdieu, Pierre 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press [orig. 1979]

__________1964. Les héritiers: Les étudiants et la culture. Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit [University of Chicago Press 1979]

Geertz, Clifford1995. After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Goffman, Erving 1963. Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings.New York: The Free Press

Halbwachs, Maurice 1992. On Collective Memory [trans. Lewis Coser]. Chicago, Ill.:University of Chicago Press

_________ 1980.The Collective Memory. New York: Harper & Row, 1980

Elizabeth Long 2007. Letter to Lynn Spillman for transmission to the Culture Section, from Elizabeth Long, Rice University, at

Willis, Paul 1972. Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press

Zolberg, Aristide R. 2008. How Many Exceptionalisms?: Explorations in Comparative Macroanalysis. Ed. By John Torpey. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press

Zolberg, Aristide R. and Zolberg, Vera L. 1969. “The Meanings of May (Paris, 1968) in Midway (Winter): 91-109)


1 As a field of study, it reached American sociology somewhat belatedly, with the posthumous translation of Halbwach’s works. Whereas the collected essays published by the University of Chicago Press (1992) remain in print, his major study (1980), published by a commercial press, was allowed to die.

2 The article, “Moments of Madness” by Aristide R. Zolberg was originally published in 1972. It has been reprinted in Zolberg 2008). Its title inspired Elzbieta Matynia, of the Sociology Department of the New School for Social Research to adopt it as the theme for a multinational consideration of that anno mirabilis.