Students in Dissent: The Underground High School Movement 1968

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On Sunday 12 October 2008, the St Kilda Historical Society hosted a public event at St Kilda Library chaired by their president Meyer Eidelson which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of ‘Students in Dissent’ whose members distributed underground newspapers in secondary schools in 1968. People who participated in the movement  attended to tell their stories of their involvement. This article includes many of the images presented at that occasion.
1968 was a truly extraordinary year, surely one of the most volatile of the twentieth century. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Russia invaded Czechoslovakia crushing the Prague Spring. There was a student and worker uprising in Paris and race riots in America. Black athletes raised the power salute at the Mexico City Olympic Games. The Tet offensive turned the tide of war against America and their allies in Vietnam. The Mai Lai massacre destroyed Allied credibility.

Affluence, education, new media, access to travel and the Vietnam War invigorated social movements in the 1960s and 1970s including disarmament, alternative medicine, alternative religion, gay pride, de-institutionalisation, black power, radical feminism, communal living, and sustainable technologies. A ‘youth revolution’ was fed by a growing counterculture in the western world. There was widespread belief that democracy and peace had to be actively defended against powerful vested interests. In an era of social experimentation and strong intergenerational differences, young people threw off a half-century of world war and depression. An old-world order seemed to be collapsing and replaced by a new one whose symbols included protest music, marijuana and LSD. The United Nations was promoting a new world order of human rights conventions engaging marginalised groups such as the disabled.

In Australia universities, students initiated sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations. The local anti-war movement was enlivened by protest movements overseas and by opposition to conscription. At an all-boys school like Melbourne High School, students and their families, were aware that they faced a conscription ballot a year or so after they finished school, potentially sending them to fight in the jungles of South East Asia. Today this would be comparable to forcing eighteen-year-olds to either fight in Iraq/Afghanistan or be gaoled.

Some secondary school students were keen to take part in the dramatic events in the world around them. In 1968 their chance came when Dr Jim Cairns convened a youth action forum to involve young people in political action. Jim Cairns was the charismatic Labor member for Richmond, a later leader of the Vietnam Moratorium and by 1973 deputy Prime Minister. Some young people split off to form independent groups such as Youth Action, Students in Dissent (SID) and Secondary School Students for Democracy. 

These students were loosely allied with a range of activitie. SID members published underground newspapers in their respective schools, sometimes using a printing press (gestetner) in the home of a student member of the Monash Labour Club in Shirley Grove, St Kilda. Some used the pseudonym of ‘Fabian Wilmore’ the non-existent spokesperson for SID. This was part of the rebel humor – having a spokesman who was everywhere and nowhere. There was also a ‘Felicity Wilmore’.

The movement came to public notice in October 1968 when underground student editor, Michael (today Meyer) Eidelson, was suspended from Melbourne High School. On 16 October the Herald headlined the event on its front page. Over the next month, a debate erupted in the media in which many participated – secondary students, teachers, parents, journalists, principals and politicians. Principals defended the school system against subversion. Teachers signed petitions protesting the repressive school system. Robert Gurry, a senior English teacher at Melbourne High School, resigned in protest.  High School students demonstrated in the city square. The Liberal Party attacked Cairns. Cairns defended the dissident students. The Labour party attacked the Minister for Education. An MP was suspended from the house during debate on the ‘Eidelson Case’.

Cartoonists such as Jeff Hook, Tanner and Weg drew razor sketches. Journalists such as Charmian Clift, Keith Dunstan and others weighed in sympathetically, perhaps recognizing a fellow scribe.

Today Meyer Eidelson is an author and the former president of the St Kilda Historical Society.

‘1968 was the year I was kicked out of Melbourne High School for subversion. I was sitting in my history class waiting for the day to end when the public address system announced ‘Michael Eidelson – go to the principal’s office!’ The other boys in the class regarded me silently as I left. They were relatively happy. Very happy that it was not them.
My heart was beating wildly as I walked down the corridor. It was a public dead man’s walk because hundreds of people heard the announcement. Many already knew that a student was being investigated for distributing an underground newspaper.
The principal sat at his desk as part of a tableau that reminded me of pictures of the American president in the Oval Office. At his right side at attention stood the vice-principal – known universally as ‘Skull’.  I stood in front facing the court-martial. For the third time in a row I refused to name the other students who had been editing and distributing the underground newspaper. I had been threatened with suspension but perhaps they were bluffing.
‘Get your books and leave the school immediately.’
I walked back to the class in a state of shock. I stood beside my desk in the middle of the room picking up my books while everybody stared. The teacher looked at my white face with concern.
‘Are you all right?’
I picked up my books and walked to the door.
‘No. I’ve just been thrown out of school.’
I walked out. A dramatic exit!
This suspension became the subject of media attention for several weeks in October/November 1968.  Often it was referred to as ‘the Eidelson case’ creating great amusement amongst my friends. They nicknamed me ‘Case’ for a long time. It shocked many people to learn that secondary students were taking political action and communicating with other secondary schools, university students and politicians.
It was very traumatic to be suspended from school and subject to criticism from powerful groups like the principal’s association, media, the Minister for Education (Lindsay Thompson) and the Liberal Party. But it showed that many voices in society were supportive of students in having a voice on public issues. In retrospect it was a great learning experience that has helped me in many areas of public life since. I coordinated advocacy programs across Victoria for many years and have been involved in many campaigns.
Australian society was rigid, conservative and autocratic and we at Melbourne High, almost accidentally, were part of a movement that shook it up. It established in the public mind that secondary students would participate in political debate regardless of expectations.’

Forty years after he was suspended, Meyer returned to Melbourne High School on 10  September 2008 to deliver a speech at an assembly to hundreds of students from the senior school.
‘It was pretty weird, to say the least, to sit in the same principal’s office where forty years earlier, perhaps to the day, I had to been ordered to collect my books and get out. Now I was being served cups of tea. Once again Sentinel Underground was being printed but now it was by the vice principal David Smythe, so that copies could be framed to hang from the walls of the school. Once again I was singled out in the assembly hall but this time it was to the applause of students and teachers who were delighted to see the old articles and cartoons highlighting another era at Melbourne High presented on a huge screen’.

The following year I attended the 40-year reunion of Melbourne High School VCE class of 1969. The Principal formally apologised to the group for my expulsion and presented me with a recent copy of Sentinel in which he had written an article urging students to use Sentinel Underground as an example for their school publication. Such is the wheel of life.’

There were many other incidents, apart from Melbourne High School, where schools reacted to underground papers with disciplinary action. Two years later many secondary students who participated in the huge moratorium march led by Jim Cairns were threatened with expulsion from schools.

The media drama, like most daily news soon passed.  Today the student underground movement is a tiny blip on the radar of history. but re-examining the clippings today reveals a fascinating debate about free speech, the rights of students and the purpose of education. It remains a microcosm of the protest movement of the 1960s and 1970s before society and students went back to sleep.

Hopefully our education system today respects the core values of young people actively participating in society and demanding a say in the decisions that affect them in the world.


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