In 1954, Berkeley became the first city in the United States to racially desegregate buses, 17 years before the desegregation of buses was written into the constitution. Sixteen years later, in 1970, UC Berkeley became one of the first college campuses to accommodate students with disabilities. Since the beginning, Berkeley has been one of the leading cities when it comes to pioneering both social and political progress.
In the 1960s, a surge of activism swept through the United States. Protests addressing the Civil Rights Movement, women’s rights, environmentalism, and the anti-Vietnam War movement were found across cities and university campuses.
UC Berkeley was no exception, and played its own roles in these movements. Rallies, protests and flier distributions were all organized on the campus regarding different movements. However, in the fall of 1964, UC Berkeley students, now participating in public protests, were being arrested by the hundreds. Media began portraying these protests as “liberals leading towards radicalism”, resulting in UC Berkeley administrators issuing orders that political activities led by students could no longer be carried out on the campus. This spurred the Free Speech Movement, where UC Berkeley students protested for their First Amendment right and with that, their rights to protest and advocate for causes they believed in.
With a forward-thinking and politically active university campus and city, the “Berkeley Bubble” was formed. The bubble is a designation of Berkeley as being sheltered from non-liberal opinions, with an almost entirely left-leaning population. According to Politico, within Alameda County, where Berkeley is located, 80.2 percent of the population voted democratic in the 2020 presidential election.
Marc Brilliant, an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at UC Berkeley, explained the social and educational impacts of the present day “Berkeley Bubble”.
“Like other forms of diversity, diversity of ideas, political and otherwise, strikes me as an important contributor to fostering a learning environment,” Brilliant wrote. “‘The Berkeley Bubble’ is defined, in part, by deep political partisanship, that, in turn, serves to limit exposure to, and engagement with, diversity of political ideas and the learning that comes from that.”
Lenka Simon, a junior at Berkeley High School expressed a similar sentiment.
“I think (the bubble) limits the discussions we can have in class,” Lenka Simon said. “It feels like everybody shares the same opinion, and so you’re not really having a debate. You’re just bringing up more points to support the conclusion that you already have.”
Because of this, Simon wants to go outside of the Bay Area for college so that they can interact with people who have different perspectives in any political or common views. Inclusivity and familiarity can be a result of being surrounded by like minded people, but engaging with contrasting ideas or political beliefs has its own benefits. According to Simon, these benefits include gaining insight and seeing different opinions.
Kai Fang-Stillman, a junior at BHS, attended an international school in Switzerland from the sixth grade until their sophomore year, where students came from several different countries, and a larger scope of political ideologies were present.
“There is really no discussion here (in Berkeley) which, for some issues, I agree that they shouldn’t have to be discussed and there are two clear sides,” Fang-Stillman said. “But for most things, they can be discussed, and it shouldn’t be dismissed because it’s educational and it enables people to be more open minded. Having this kind of bubble makes it a bit hard for people in the Bay Area to go outside and realize that it’s not the same everywhere.”
Tristan Jesadavisut, a junior at BHS, also attended several international schools in England, Cambodia, and Thailand. In contrast to his other schools, Jesadavisut found the majority of students and faculty at BHS have similar opinions. Jesadavisut also expressed that there seemed to be an expectation that every student was liberal or democratic, an assumption that limits the range of possible conversations.
“Mostly everyone (at BHS) has the same opinions, and mostly, you are kind of shamed for having a different opinion,” Jesadavisut said.
Fang-Stillman described a similar perspective describing the “Berkeley bubble” as somewhat unrealistic.
“What I’ve noticed here (is that everything has) to be politically correct … Everyone has to have the same political ideas, which I feel like is not realistic,” Fang-Stillman said.
Despite the restrictions the “Berkeley Bubble” creates, it has positively influenced the BHS curriculum in many ways, including the addition of an Ethnic Studies class. Appreciating the autonomy that comes with the “Berkeley Bubble”, Ann Sperske, a BHS social studies teacher for Academic Choice, explained the benefits of the “Berkeley Bubble”.
“That autonomy lends itself to teaching about topics that are difficult sometimes for other teachers to approach whether it’s about slavery, or about other humanities based topics,” Sperske said. “So that autonomy gives us a lot of freedom … that we wouldn’t have in other places.”
Sperske continued, “The freedom in Berkeley (allows for) social justice issues to be brought up more frequently in classrooms,” Sperske said. “We can talk about climate change, there are no book bans, we can talk about doctor assisted suicide, we can talk about abortion rights, and reproductive rights. There’s a lot of things that we can actually address in (Berkeley) classrooms that other people in other states cannot.”