The Clark Kerr (mis)quote Adventure A journey into conventional wisdom, casual scholarship, and librarian redemption

Lincoln Cushing, 10/1/2010
Author's note: This essay is currently not published anywhere else;
for permission to use contact

Recently, while searching for source material to explain the social transition from the 1950s to the 1960s, I ran across this provocative quotation online in the article "The Indignant Generation" by Jessica Mitford Treuhaft in The Nation, May 27, 1961:[2]

“In 1959 Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, wrote with prophetic irony, ‘The employers will love this generation, they are not going to press many grievances. They are going to be easy to handle. There aren't going to be any riots.’

The text describes the quotation as "Buried somewhere in a 1959 publication of the American Council of Education reporting a conference on the college students."

Despite my respect for Jessica Mitford, I was troubled by the casual citation, and the quotation seemed a bit uncharacteristic of Kerr. Yes, student activists criticized his actions as U.C. president during Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, but he was also a progressive leader in postwar labor-management relations and was personally harassed by none other than the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover for being too liberal. San Francisco Chronicle journalist Seth Rosenfeld doggedly pursued FBI documents that eventually revealed the extent of Kerr’s persecution. [3]

So I looked for the full quotation, which led me to several dead ends.

It appears in The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980, by Steven F. Hayward, p. 64, chapter 2, footnote #25; since the actual footnote is not shown in Google Books, I made a trip to U.C. Berkeley’s main library stacks and found that Hayward got it from Terry H. Anderson’s The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee, 1995, p.39.

But the Anderson book provides no citation either. When I spoke with Professor Anderson about this, he confirmed that he’d used the quote without any specific reference, saying that it was used in “every book on sixties student unrest” and was confident it must be authentic.[4]

Anderson may be right about the quote's ubiquity. Just for a test, I grabbed the closest relevant book on my shelf, Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press by Abe Peck, 1991. Yup, there it was on page 27. No, no citation.

Online, the quotation is also noted, without citation, in a 4/17/2007 article by Jack Newfield[5] and in excerpts from The People's Almanac series by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace. [6]

It seemed that nobody ever cited the actual full quotation and context. Perhaps it’s human nature to be lulled into a sense of complacency about “facts” when they appear repeatedly in other publications, especially when they offer a provocative comment that supports the point you are making. But I wasn’t satisfied, and felt that there must be more to this.

I followed up on the most promising lead, the mention in Jessica Mitford’s article about the document being produced by the American Council on Education. Their website lists a “Library and Information Service” with an e-mail contact. My query drew an immediate response from L&IS Director Jill Bogard. Over the course of two days she actively pursued her leads, searched databases, sent me the finding aid to the ACE archives at Stanford, and dragged up documents from deep storage. Finally, she found the source document and mailed a copy to me. As she put it,

"I love this kind of stuff -- the challenge of identifying and locating a mystery document and the satisfaction of finding the needle in the haystack. I am dismayed that so many writers use secondary sources, take them at face value, and never bother to fact check."

A careful reading of the document reveals that the commonly circulated version of the quotation is severely edited. What is more disturbing is that it clearly mischaracterized the point that Kerr was making. Gone is the apparent smugness of a reactionary university administrator revealing his true feelings in a document “buried” (?) far from public scrutiny; instead, we see the conflicted thoughts of someone concerned about the consequences of modern industrialized higher education and the sort of students it turns out.

However, this admission was not nearly as juicy, and didn’t fit the goal of pigeonholing Kerr as a corporate apologist. As Mark Twain is (probably incorrectly) quoted as wryly commenting, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” [7]

Below is the actual text. [8] Readers may judge for themselves what Kerr really thought of the complex new world that students of the 1960s generation were entering. They can also be reminded to produce citations before putting them in the public record. And finally, they can thank librarians for continuing to serve as the caretakers of documents.

Social conformity as a goal

MR. KERR: What I am about to say now, I don't like. But I am going to say it anyway. We talk about the changing values of college students, and we do not like the direction in which they are changing. But maybe it is the attitude and values of the faculty members which ought to change. Granted that we have a great diversification of technical skills, still couldn't quite an argument be made that the fairly uniform social values and social skills of students today fit pretty well the world out of which they come and particularly the world into which they are going - the large corporation, the suburb, the mass trade union, and such? And we might say they aren't as we were. Perhaps they aren't what we ideally would like to see them. They are not independent and individualistic, but they do fit the needs of our emerging industrial society. They are a kind of pre-Organization Man. I can just see, having done arbitration in the industrial scene, that the employers will love this generation, that they are not going to press very many grievances, there won't be much trouble, they are going to do their jobs, they are going to be easy to handle. There aren't going to be riots. There aren't going to be revolutions. There aren't going to be many strikes.

MR. RIESMAN: You mean only panty raids.

MR. KERR: Panty raids are not likely to exist in their later lives because they will live in suburbs and will be scattered. Maybe we ought to say that this is at least inevitable and perhaps, if we look upon our function as training people for society, that this is good. I don't like to admit the burden of my own argument. But let me simply put it on the table and ask whether we are not what is wrong rather than the current generation of students. Haven't they made a much better adjustment to this emerging industrial society with its large urban centers, mass organizations, than we have, and shouldn't we glory in their values rather than condemn them? Let me repeat that I dislike this idea.

MR. JACOB: I think it bears very directly on this question of re-evaluating the liberal part of education. Instead of the alternatives we have been considering, we might just accept culture adjustment as a premium product and forget about the value goals that we have normally associated with liberal education.

CHAIRMAN KILLIAN: I should like to ask Dr. Riesman if he feels that this concept of the degeneration of the Puritan ethic that Mr. Whyte has talked about and the development of the Organization Man is an inevitable process, the process toward conformity that goes with it, whether, therefore, the comment that Dr. Kerr has made is relevant or significant, and whether colleges are augmenting and furthering and making themselves a part of this changing process. I know this is a question that cannot be answered out of hand.

MR. REI[S]MAN: I am still thinking about Dr. Kerr's comments. I think what he ought to add to his picture, as one sees it very clearly and not entirely sardonically, is that the world into which young people are going is reasonably civilized. It is not so different from the academic world. My own feeling is that business and academia are becoming as organized as other previous social groupings, and this is the reason for making college different - it is not now different from enlightened business institutions which have their own educational programs.

MR. KERR: There is a degree of academic freedom in the corporation.

MR. RIESMAN: Yes, very much. If there weren't this tolerance and decency and civic-mindedness and academic-mindedness in the large corporation, our young people would have something to rebel against. The prices that they are asked to pay are all so subtle. Putting into context what you said, Dr. Kerr, and what Dr. Jacob has just described as a homogenization process, there is a partial incorporation of good things by all institutional processes. So this problem of salvation by leaps becomes ever more difficult.

Notes and references:
1. The author was Electronic Outreach Librarian at the U.C. Berkeley Institute of Industrial Relations Library from 2001-2004 where Kerr maintained his last campus office before his death in 2003. The author once designed a commemorative bookplate for Kerr, <>

2. <>

3. “Trouble on campus,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 2002;

4. Phone conversation with Professor Terry H. Anderson at Texas A&M, 9/22/2010

5. <>

6. <>

7. Cited in Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time, by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, Bantam Books, 1977. However, according to, “This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but it has never been verified as originating with Twain. This quote may have originated with Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) who attributed it to an old proverb in a sermon delivered on Sunday morning, April 1, 1855. Spurgeon was a celebrated English fundamentalist Baptist preacher. His words were: "A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on."”

8. Spotlight on the college student; a discussion by the Problems and Policies Committee of the American Council on Education; led by David Riesman, Philip E. Jacob [and] Nevitt Sanford. Edited by Margaret L. Habein. American Council on Education. Washington. [c1959], pages 40-41. Scanned, OCR’d, and cleaned up by author; commonly cited quotation is highlighted.

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