Flaunting the Freak Flag, by Gael Graham

Teaching the Article

(You may download all the exercises along with their supporting documents and images as a single PDF file.)

Freedom is one of the most heavily freighted words in the American lexicon. Americans emphasize the centrality of freedom and of the rights that give the concept specific meaning in their history. But the word has meant different things in different eras and to different people. In the 1960s, Cold War freedom--which centered on market freedom (rights to control property) and political liberties (rights to participate in government)--was challenged by demands for freedom for minority groups and for individuals. Those demands centered on different kinds of rights and freedoms. Some groups demanded the right of inclusion, seeking access to traditional market freedoms and political liberties. Others demanded the right of individual self-expression. In other words, some demands involved access to power, others the protection of individuals from oppressive power. The resulting clash between those who valued stability as the prerequisite for American freedom and those who believed that true freedom required dramatic changes in American society contributed to the turmoil and dynamism of the 1960s. "Sixties freedom" developed into a heady mixture, rejecting traditional cultural norms and authorities while expanding the freedoms, rights, and power of both individuals and long-marginalized groups.

The idea that high school students constituted a marginalized group deserving greater freedoms, rights, and power astonished many adults, who typically perceived childhood as a protected age of innocence and dependence. The teen culture that blossomed in the 1950s revolved around sociability and age-specific consumption, reinforcing adults' sense that teenagers were pampered, not oppressed. But like their college cousins, high school students in the 1960s embraced the rhetoric of freedom, seeking it not in the abstractions of state and market but in the realm of their own experience. In the schools where they spent many of their waking hours, students chafed at regulations that seemed to deny them rights to group and individual identity. Encouraged and inspired by the other groups agitating for more freedom, high school activists led a broad movement in pursuit of their own rights.

Most school officials thought the high school student rights movement challenged authority and disrupted education. They regarded students as children, dismissed their claims to citizenship, and insisted that their own power be upheld. Moreover, many school officials abhorred countercultural expressiveness. Their efforts to quell it among high school students pushed cultural rebels toward political rebellion in the student rights movement. Some adults outside the schools agreed with school officials that high school student activism threatened orderly education; others viewed it as a positive force.

The story of Chesley Karr's lawsuit against his high school in El Paso, Texas, in 1970, highlights the contours of the rights revolution in American high schools and its relationship to cultural changes outside the schools. Karr challenged his school's haircut rule as an individual, claiming a right to wear his hair as he wished (a right of self-expression). School officials denied that there was such a right and insisted that their obligation to educate students overrode students' desire to control their appearance. Initially, in federal court, Karr prevailed. But once the school board (backed by a ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals) unilaterally reinstituted the haircut rule, other students arose collectively to assert their right to be consulted about rules that applied to them (a right of inclusion). Citizens in El Paso wrote impassioned letters to newspaper editors, defining freedom and rights and staking out positions on the counterculture. Although Karr lost his case on appeal, activist high school students in El Paso won greater rights of both inclusion and self-expression when the superintendent of schools agreed to appoint a new committee with equal numbers of students and adults to reconsider dress code policies. Ultimately, the dress code in El Paso schools collapsed.

The four exercises that follow ask students to think about different definitions of freedom, the specific rights that constituted freedom, and the values that underlay the definitions. Instructors may also want to push students to articulate their own values. Which arguments do they find most compelling and why?

Another issue is the relationship between childhood and citizenship. Are children citizens? Junior citizens? Citizens-in-training? How did high school students in the 1970s view themselves? How did adults view them? How do those views of teenagers compare with how young people in other eras regarded themselves and were regarded by adults?

Since so much of the unrest in high schools centered on students' desire to wear long hair and certain contemporary clothing styles, students might probe the relationship between fashion and politics. Was long hair just a matter of style for boys? Did they wear it long to provoke adults or make political statements? Did adults misread the messages such styles sent? Finally, how do the hair wars fit into the broader history of the 1960s? Were high school students just one more group waving the banner of rights and self-expression? Or does their story change the way we think about the 1960s?


Exercise 1

By the late 1960s, the rights revolution under way in American society had emerged among public high school students. Activist high school students defined themselves as citizens deprived of their rights within the high schools and demanded changes that, they believed, would both empower them and improve education. Using a poll of twenty-five hundred students, teachers, and parents from Life magazine; two proposed high school students' bills of rights (one devised by black students, one by white students); and the statement "Students' Rights and Responsibilities" (devised by adults), this exercise asks students to examine the differences in students' and adults' views of the schools and students' place in them.


Exercise 2

More high school students protested against official dress codes than against any other single measure, policy, or event. One study concluded that one-third of all disruptions in high schools stemmed from student revolts against hair and clothing regulations. School officials, however, believed that dress codes were necessary for effective education. This exercise provides examples of school dress codes (including one for teachers) and high school student reactions to them. It asks students to consider the rationales for dress codes, to evaluate specific elements of the codes, and to weigh the desires of administrators against high school students' objections.


Exercise 3

The most important court case of this era pertaining to children of high school age was Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), which centered on students' rights to express political viewsóin this case, by wearing black armbands in school. The Supreme Court ruled for the students and emphasized that schools must respect students' constitutional rights. Nevertheless, the ruling also underscored schools' need to maintain an environment conducive to education. That hedging gave judges who heard later cases no clear guidelines on where students' rights ended and schools' responsibilities began. The documents in this exercise include appellate and U.S. Supreme Court decisions that refer to Tinker yet define students' rights very differently. It asks students to examine the courts' rationales. Which elements of the Tinker opinion figure in the later cases? What values underlie the opinions? If they had been the judges, how would students have ruled in these cases?


Exercise 4

This exercise examines public opinion on the Chesley Karr case. The two main newspapers in El Paso covered the district court case on their front pages and published dozens of letters from readers. Four letters from the El Paso papers are reproduced here, along with a letter to Ann Landers (a syndicated advice columnist) and an Associated Press news story about the Supreme Court's refusal to hear Karr's appeal. Questions students might examine include: Why did people who were neither students nor school officials take an interest in the case? How did they relate it to their definitions of freedom and rights? What do the letters and news story tell us about power, tradition, and the clash of values in the 1960s?