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Students in Dissent - Forty Years Later

12 October 2008

This public event celebrates the fortieth anniversary of ‘Students in Dissent’ whose members distributed underground newspapers in secondary schools from 1968. Former students from the underground are invited to attend and tell their stories of these events. There will be the launch of a small booklet on the history, an exhibition of some of the original underground newspapers and a multimedia presentation documenting SID events in 1968. 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. It was the year of the assassination of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the crushing of the Prague Spring. It was the year of the Paris Uprising involving ten million worker and students. The TET offensive changed the tide of war against the American and allies in Vietnam. The Mai Lai massacre destroyed American credibility. There was a youth revolution fed by growing a growing counterculture in the western world. In Australia the antiwar movement was on the rise. At universities students were engaged in sit-ins strikes and demonstrations. Male high school students faced a conscription ballot the year after they finished school, potentially sending them to fight in the jungles of South East Asia. Many secondary school students were keen to be involved in influencing these events. In 1968 Dr Jim Cairns (later deputy Prime Minister) convened a youth action forum to capture this interest. Some of the young people split off to form their independent groups such as Students in Dissent (SID) or later Secondary School Students for Democracy (SSDS). These students were loosely allied and many edited underground newspapers in their respective schools, sometimes using the press owned by the Monash Labour Club at a house in Shirley Grove, St Kilda. Some used the pseudonym of Fabian Willmore the non-existent spokesperson for SID. This was part of the rebel humor having a spokesman who was everywhere yet nowhere. There was even a ‘Felicity Wilmore’.

This came to a head in September 1968 when underground student editor, Michael (today Meyer) Eidelson, was suspended from Melbourne High School for printing Sentinel Underground (the school paper was Sentinel). On 4 October the Herald Sun headlined the event on its front page. Over the next month a debate erupted in the media in which participated secondary strident, teachers, principals, politicians, cartoonist and journalists. A teacher resigned in protest from Melbourne High School. An MP was suspended from the house during debate on the ‘Eidelson Case’. Teachers signed petitions. High School students demonstrated in the city square. The Liberal Party attacked Cairns. The Labour party attacked the Minister for Education. Today Meyer Eidelson is an historian, writer and the president of the St Kilda Historical Society. He says: "It was a very traumatic to be expelled from school as a seventeen year old. However I learnt an enormous amount from the experience, which has served me well in public life. We defied the status quo and established in the public mind for the first time that young people would participate in the politics of protest. The secondary school system like the wider society was a very conservative place and I am proud we shook it up a little."

Forty years after he was suspended, Meyer returned to Melbourne High School on 10 September 2008 to address hundreds of students at school assembly.

‘It was astonishing to say the least to sit in the same principal’s office where exactly forty years ago to the day, I had to been ordered to collect my books and get out immediately. Now I was being served cups of tea. Once again Sentinel Underground was being printed but now it was by the vice principal so that copies could be framed to hang on 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 seemed delighted to see the old articles and cartoons highlighting another era at Melbourne High presented on a giant screen.’