Transcendental Students differed from the more nationally well-known student group, Students for a Democratic Society also based in New York City, both in philosophy and tactics. While SDS believed that government and society would need to be restructured, TS believed that social life could be humanized immediately through actions. As SDS pushed for reform of government or democracy, TS called for decentralization. SDS was influenced by state socialist thinking, while TS drew from anarchist and Situationist philosophy. However, TS and SDS did collaborate on some actions.
TS began in the spring semester of the 1968-1969 school year after a series of sit-ins protesting overcrowding in the classroom. TS became known for holding events that they referred to as "Freak Ins" (or alternatively, "Freak Outs"). These convergences would occupy and 'free' an area, transforming study halls into radical spaces. As Frank Zappa wrote in the notes to the 1966 album Freak Out! "On a personal level, Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express creatively her relationship to her immediate environment and the social structure as a whole." In ways, the goal of TS's gatherings were to create Temporary Autonomous Zones for the NYU community. (Similarly, twenty years later, in 1988, the San Francisco-based Cacophony Society began holding 'Trips to the Zone', beginning with a party at Baker Beach and later resulting in the Burning Man festival.) Present at these gatherings was TS's signature black flag with a red middle finger in gesture.
At NYU, TS became a large group. TS would criticize SDS, dismissing its leaders as self-serving and its politics as incomplete or petty. Soon TS eclipsed SDS on that campus. As historian William O'Neill writes in Coming Apart, "In the fall of 1969 the most important radical student group at New York University was called Transcendental Students. At a time when SDS could barely muster twenty-five members, five hundred or more belonged to TS." The group was seen as a threat by some authorities and some members found themselves spied on by the NYPD political intelligence unit or "Red Squad".
In 1970, TS organized the takeover and occupation of NYU's Courant Institute where they held a $3.5 million CDC 6600 computer hostage (equivalent to $19.4 million in 2010 dollars), demanding $100,000 ransom to be used for bail for the "Panther 21". The occupation, involving 200 students and at least 2 professors, was also in opposition to NYU's connection to the Atomic Energy Commission and Richard Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. When their demands were not met, members of TS suggested the computer's memory be erased with magnets while other students (perhaps Weathermen) decided to destroy the multi-million dollar machine outright with incendiary devices. The devices were disabled and the CDC 6600 computer saved by mathematician Peter Lax, then director of NYU's computing center.
Forty years later, a number of student groups around the country began similar attempts at occupying university buildings, using both sit-ins and dance parties, with the goals of changing social relationships. These included efforts at NYU, The New School, the University of California and California State University. At many of these universities the administrations tend to valorize their schools' radical past of protest and dissent, even advertising it in their recruitment materials. This elevation of past protests as part of a storied history may assist the university in its attempts to denigrate the contemporary student actions as misguided anger. At NYU students received a large amount of coverage in the media after 70 students occupied Kimmel student center. Despite the NYU administration's embrace of its storied history, many students were arrested and a number were recommended for expulsion from the school.
- "Transcendental Students". NYU Library.
- Anarchism in America (1982), Pacific Street Film
- O'Neill, William (1971). Coming Apart. ISBN 978-1-56663-613-1.
- Chisun Lee (December 17, 2002). "The NYPD Wants You". Village Voice.
- Kayton, Bruce (2003). Radical Walking Tours of New York City. ISBN 978-1-58322-554-7.
- Phillip Colella (April 26, 2004). "Peter Lax". Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
- Inciting to Riot - clip from the TS film Inciting to Riot