Landed in Madison, Wisconsin last night for a training this afternoon with the student government association at the University of Wisconsin. This morning I popped into Paul’s Books, like I always do when I’m in Madison, to check out their education section. By far the best collection of obscure student movement histories of any bookstore I’ve ever been in.
Anyway, I was flipping through the shelves and stumbled across a book called “The Dignity of Youth and Other Ativisms,” which I’d never heard of, by a sociologist I’ve never heard of.
It’s a collection of essays and book reviews, mostly about high school students, and I was about to close it and put it back when a glimpse of something caught my eye. I thumbed back and there it was: “U.S.N.S.A.”
I come across references to NSA in books from this era all the time, and usually they’re not of much interest. But this was different, it turned out. Better. Way better. The author had “twice been a speaker at national meetings of the United States National Student Association,” most recently in 1963 (the book was published in 1965), and a big chunk of the preface—eight dense pages—is devoted to his impressions of the National Student Congresses he attended.
There’s a tremendous amount of great stuff in here, and I’m immensely frustrated not to have found it while I was working on my dissertation. Some excerpts:
“It is not tedious and boring; neither is it, in the usual sense, exciting and interesting. These are not the right dimensions along which to place the experience, which is psychedelic rather than intellectual. Within a few hours, as the emotional pressure of the meeting gradually builds up, other aspects of reality lose their power to distract; to break off from the meeting would produce an aesthetic shock, a sense of incomplete closure.”
“U.S.N.S.A. delegates play politics not like professional politicians but like tough amateurs of a sport at which they excel. Victory does not change the course of history, and they know it, but they mean to win and they play for keeps. They put—the cliché is precise—body and soul into it.”
“The kids dress for comfort, and at their age to dress for comfort is to dress for effect. I do not simply mean that this makes them more attractive, though it certainly does; but that the whole feeling-tone becomes more authentic; gestures are more revealing, the whole emotional weight of the delegate seems to flow more easily into what he is saying. If this seems like mere personal fantasy, I would suggest that you imagine Senator Dirksen attempting to carry his point while dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts and sandals. There are students at the University of Illinois, however, who can do this quite effectively.”