Grade: High
Subject: Social Studies/History

Essential Question

How did the counterculture movement of the late 1960s challenge traditional American behaviors and values, and how did the Grateful Dead reflect these changing views of life and society?


Note to teacher: The primary sources used in this lesson contain passing reference to drug use. Teacher discretion advised.

After World War II, The United States entered into a period of enormous economic growth and prosperity that lasted until the early 1970s. While the war was over, the perceived threat of communism resulted in escalated military spending, which led to the development of many new technologies and industries. In addition, the U.S. government continued to invest in social projects such as public schools, housing, highways, welfare, and veterans benefits that stimulated growth. Unions, a major influence in the US labor market following the support of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, were able to successfully negotiate fair wages for workers. As a result, millions of Americans gained access to meaningful employment, invested in homes, and stocked them with families and new commodities. After a long period of declining births, the post World War II era saw the birth rate skyrocket and the nation’s population rose almost 20 percent. The generation now known as the “Baby Boomer” was born.

There were some, however, who were troubled by the consumption during this “Golden Era of Capitalism.” Perhaps the most poignant and detailed critiques came from a group of German scholars collectively known as the Frankfurt School. Having experienced the Holocaust first-hand, Frankfurt School critics like Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno feared that the consumerist society of the 1950s wasn’t liberating people, but rather acting as a means of social control. For them, TV shows, popular music, and the newest dishwasher were nothing more than a way to placate the masses, and keep the average Westerner distracted and uninterested in thinking critically about rampant militarization and a world that was spiralling ever closer to nuclear war.

By the time the Baby Boom generation was coming into adulthood in the mid 1960s, the Frankfurt School’s criticisms had begun to garner more attention. Many of the young adult “Boomers”became disenchanted with the types of consumption valued by their parents’ generation and began seeking new experiences, experimenting with varied modes of thought and styles of living.

One of the most famous of such experiments culminated at Haight-Ashbury, a district of San Francisco, California. Between 1965 and 1967, young people from across the country arrived to Haight-Ashbury, drawn in by cheap rent and the bohemian reputation of the neighborhood established largely by the various artists of the Beat era. A vibrant counterculture developed, made up of a community of what some would later refer to as “hippies,” people who rejected the pressure to live as workers, earners, and consumers within a singular family unit. During this era, many in Haight-Ashbury embraced the possibilities of nearly anything perceived as outside the mainstream, including communism and communal living, open relationships and sexual liberation, various elements of Eastern religions, and psychotropic drugs such as LSD and peyote. And, of course, music.

Rock and Roll was the primary musical language of Haight-Ashbury, and in the hands of its inhabitants, the music became experimental and careened outside its previous bounds. Free concerts proliferated in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and on the city’s streets, while venues such as the Matrix and the Fillmore showcased bands that personified the “San Francisco Sound”: Jefferson Airplane. Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and others. The band that came to most represent this moment in Haight-Ashbury, however, was the Grateful Dead.

While the Grateful Dead and their fans maintained some elements of countercultural ideals well into the 1990s, much of the idealism of Haight-Ashbury as a utopian location did not survive the 1960s.. Following the publicity of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” thousands flocked to the neighborhood, overrunning the area, and, in the language of the day, “burning out.” American corporations saw the value of “flower power,” and absorbed key elements of the movement for marketing purposes, turning much of it into nothing more than a fashion trend that could be found in stores across America. Record companies too saw opportunity, and some of the San Francisco bands ultimately became the Top-40 artists they were so critical of earlier in their careers. Some suggest that by the time the country embraced the counterculture, it was already over.

In this lesson, students explore the significance of the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s by watching clips from the documentary Long Strange Trip and reading journalistic accounts of the hippie movement in that neighborhood. They then debate the significance of the countercultural scene: were hippies trying to change American society, or simply escape it?

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  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The “mainstream” social and cultural environment of the 1960s
    • The dominant beliefs and actions of the counterculture of the late 1960s
    • The writing of Herbert Marcuse
    • The historical significance of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood
    • Journalistic accounts of Haight-Ashbury by Ralph J. Gleason, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and Warren Hinckle
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to define the idea of “counterculture” and apply it to the present moment by examining journalism, literature, and music of the 1960s.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Have you ever heard the term “counterculture” or “countercultural”? What do you think that term means?
  2. Ask students to write a 1-sentence definition of the term on a scratch piece of paper.
  3. Show Image 1, Counterculture Definition. Ask students:
    • Was your definition similar to the dictionary definition?
    • How was your definition different than the dictionary definition?
    • What might it mean to be “opposed to” or “at variance with” a social norm? Can you give an example?
    • Can you think of an activity, attitude, or past-time that might be considered “countercultural” today? Why?
    • To be against the social norm, you first have to define what the “social norm” is. What do you think some of the “social norms” are today? Where do you see them? How do you experience them?


  1. Tell students that they will be exploring the social norms and countercultural movement of the 1960s. Play Clip 1, Television Commercials from the 1960s and 1970s and ask students to take notes on what values they think these commercials promoted. Ask students:
    • What kinds of things are being sold in these commercials? What categories of products do they belong to?
    • What kinds of audiences do you think these commercials might have been catering to? What different ways do you think they attempted to excite or interest their audiences?
    • In what ways are these products being sold? What problems do the commercials suggest they might solve for customers?
    • Do you think some of the commercials were catered more to men, and others to women? Why? Did the commercials use different approaches towards male audiences versus female audiences? What might this say about society in the 1960s?
    • What sort of values might these commercials be promoting? Why? (Note to teacher: encourage students to consider if the commercials tell the audience to buy a product, or suggest to their audience that they should be and act a certain way. For instance, are the toy commercials instilling certain gender roles into boys and girls?) 
    • What else did you notice about the commercials?
  2. Tell students that in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States experienced an economic boom. For the first time, millions of people could afford their own house, and new technologies allowed a variety of goods to be produced cheaply. While many celebrated this era, others were critical, fearing Americans were becoming mindless workers and consumers incapable of critical thought.
  3. Show Image 2, Excerpts from One-Dimensional Man. Tell students the following quotes come from the book One-Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse. Written in 1964, it became one of the most well-known books critiquing mainstream culture in the 1960s. Read the quotes aloud as a class, then ask students:
    • What do you think Marcuse means by the word “commodities”? What kind of examples of commodities does he list?
    • In the first except, what might Marcuse mean when he writes that “people recognize themselves by their commodities”? Can you think of an example of how someone could be recognized or defined by the things they buy?
    • In the second excerpt, Marcuse argues that customers are bound to the producers that make the things they buy. In what way might this be the case? Do you feel a close connection with a particular company or brand? Why?
    • In the second excerpt, Marcuse states that products “carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits.” What sorts of attitudes and habits were reinforced by the commercials you watched earlier? What sort of habits might be associated with products today?
    • In the third excerpt, what might the word “discourse” mean? What does he mean by the “universe of discourse?” (Note: “Discourse” is defined as, “written or spoken communication or debate.”)
    • How might consumerist society limit or control what people talk about or what they do on a daily basis, leading to “One-Dimensional Thought”? What might companies want their customers thinking about, and what might they not want their customers thinking about?
    • To resist “One-Dimensional Thought,” Marcuse recommends a “great refusal.” How might one refuse consumer culture?
  4. Play Clip 2, Introducing Haight-Ashbury. Ask students:
    • What was appealing to the “Hippies” about the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury?
    • The journalist describing Haight-Ashbury in the clip claims that the neighborhood attracted young people “seeking something new and significant for themselves.” What might have these young people hoped to find?
    • What might daily life have been like for the young people who relocated to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood? Would you want to live in that kind of environment? Why or why not?
    • How can moving to Haight-Ashbury be seen as its own “great refusal”? What might have these people have been refusing?
  5. Play Clip 3, Introducing the Grateful Dead. Ask students:
    • What was the Grateful Dead’s daily life like when they lived in Haight-Ashbury? Do you think this was typical of others who lived there?
    • What might have Jerry Garcia meant when he said at the beginning of the clip, “We’d all like to be able to live an uncluttered life, a simple life, a good life?” How might that statement have been a critique of the mainstream society of the 1960s?
    • How does the Grateful Dead’s living situation differ from what was presented in the commercials? Do you think their lifestyle was common at the time? What might make their lifestyle “countercultural”?
  6. Divide students into groups of five, and pass out Handout 1 – Journalists Describe the Haight-Ashbury Scene. Ask students to complete the instructions on the handout, and then report to the class the discussion they had and the conclusions they made as a group.

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Based on what you read and watched today, can you summarize the philosophy of the Hippies and new young people in Haight-Ashbury? How could it be considered countercultural?
    • What were the goals of the Hippie movement? How were those goals achieved? How were they frustrated?
    • Do you think the Hippie movement brought about any change in American society or culture? If so, what sort of change? If not, how come?
    • Do you see any contradictions within the varied goals of the people drawn to San Francisco?
  2. Display Image 2, Excerpts from One-Dimensional Man again. Direct students’ attention to the first excerpt, and ask the class:
    • Today, what sort of products might have Marcuse criticized? Would it still be cars, television sets, houses, and kitchen equipment, or would it be something else? What products today might Marcuse say people “find their soul” in?
    • What would a “great refusal” look like today? Is it possible to be countercultural in today’s society? What risks would it entail, and what benefits? Would it still look something like the Haight-Ashbury Hippie scene? Why or why not?

Extension Activities:

  1. Interview a fellow student who you think exemplifies today’s “counterculture,” and ask them about their beliefs and opinions of society.
  2. Interview a member of your family that was either a teen or adult in the late 1960s. What memories do they have of that time? Did they know about the hippies in Haight-Ashbury? Do they remember having an opinion of the hippies at that time? Has that opinion changed today?
  3. Read Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker article “Outdoor Voices Blurs the Lines Between Working Out and Everything Else.” Write an essay discussing the ways Tolentino’s account of Outdoor Voices compares and contrasts with Marcuse’s critique of society in the 1960s. Has much changed in consumerism since the 1960s?
  4. Listen to music from bands that constructed the “San Francisco sound.” Summarize what you see as the defining characteristics of this style of music, and consider the ways those musical characteristics might represent the attitudes among the hippies in Haight-Ashbury. Bands could include the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Craft and Structure 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge  9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 5:  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1:Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 7: Production, Distributions, and Consumption
  • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.1 Compare and contrast the ways in which different artistic media (television, newspapers, magazines, and electronic media) cover the same commercial content.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B7.4 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the actor and performance artist in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.

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