BERKELEY — In the photograph that dominates the lobby of Sproul Hall at the University of California, a throng of students marches through Sather Gate, the university's southern entrance. The students carry a banner proclaiming "Free Speech."
They are en route to a Board of Regents meeting to demand just that and they are blessed. The photo was taken on a cool November afternoon in 1964 and the day's angled autumn light bathes them in a Hollywood glow of goodness, the kind of light reserved for second comings.
The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was a harbinger, even an instigator, of a huge wave of social protest that upended American culture so completely that it hasn't been put back together since. Beyond the momentous occasion the photo commemorates, there are a few peculiarities about it worth noting.
First, it hangs in the most prominent place in the most prominent building on the campus, an odd spot to put something that memorializes the overthrow of the duly constituted authority of the university.
Second, the rebelling students look anything but rebellious. The girls wore dresses and low heels. The boys wore suits and ties.
Third, the man in the middle of the photograph, the one wearing the best suit, is not a student at all, but a young assistant professor of philosophy named John Searle. That Searle would end up in the middle of a pack of rebellious students was prophetic.
Searle's concerns at the time had little to do with university reform. He was teaching, trying to finish his first book, and feeding a wife and two small sons. He did have a genuine concern for free speech--mainly, he says, the free speech of young assistant professors.
Still, ending up in the middle of a demonstration demanding it would seem out of character if Searle hadn't gone on to build a career composed mainly of jumping into the middle of places he had no apparent reason to be and turning them upside down.
He's now 66, established as one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th century, noted for his ruthless disregard of affectation and his celebration of common-sense solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The subject himself of scholarly conferences, he is a key figure in at least three disciplines: the philosophy of language, artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness. And in all of them he has at various times caused more ferocious international intellectual debates than he has had time to manage.
He spends weekends in the deep powder of the Sierra. When he isn't skiing, he might be sailing with his San Francisco socialite pals, the Gettys, or buying Persian rugs with Hollywood buddies Billy Friedkin and Sherry Lansing, or tasting big reds from the little boutique winery he advised for decades. Or he is writing yet another article for a scholarly journal or the New York Review of Books, or pushing to finish his 11th book and contemplating another hundred he has on his list to write.
"I go to the library to get a book on symbolic logic and I find myself reading about the war in the desert or the development of ceramics in Europe. One of my problems," he says, with a degree of understatement, "is that everything interests me."
School's Contentious History
The University of California has been a bellwether of the state's culture for the last 50 years. Many of the debates about what sort of place California ought to be, and subsequently the nation, played out here: the marches of the '60s, the Reagan and Brown tug-of-war in the '70s, Proposition 13-induced retrenchments of the '80s, and the fierce battles over race, ethnicity and their roles in the social order still ongoing.
All that notwithstanding, the construction of the University of California, and the system that grew around it, is regarded as among the most remarkable achievements in a California century stuffed full of remarkable achievement. No educational undertaking like it has ever been achieved, and seldom attempted, in so short a time span anywhere on Earth.
The development of so rich and vast an intellectual infrastructure joined with the state's magnificent physical endowment to create a place where almost everything seemed possible, and sometimes was. The scope of achievements of UC researchers, teachers and students--from the invention of the transistor to the creation of television game shows--is stunning.
Searle is representative of UC and its rise to preeminence among world universities. With little or no expectation, propelled mainly by the force of will and fearless intellect, he grew to prominence out of what had been a philosophical backwater and has resolutely remained at the top. When Searle told his fellow dons at Oxford that he was going to leave for California, they were incredulous. One asked, seriously, "But whom could you possibly talk to?"