Contents | April 2001

In This Issue (Contributors)

More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.


The Organization Kid - Page 3
1 | 2 | 3 | 4



Illustration by Tim O'Brien
The Moral Life of the Organization Kid

hen students enter college today, they are on familiar ground. After throwing off curfews, dress codes, and dormitory supervision in the 1970s, most colleges are reimposing their authority and reasserting order, just as high schools and families are. Some universities are trying to restrict or eliminate drinking. Many are cracking down on fraternity hazing rites. Others have banned Dionysian rituals such as lascivious costume balls and Princeton's Nude Olympics. University regulations intrude far more into the personal lives of students, and the students seem to approve.

As part of an effort to cajole students into behaving responsibly, many colleges have tried to provide places where they can go to amuse themselves without alcohol or drugs. Princeton has just completed a new student facility in the Frist Campus Center, formerly Palmer Hall, an old science building. On a walk from the library to Frist one may pass Prospect House, formerly the president's residence and now the faculty club, with a sparkling, glass-walled restaurant overlooking beautifully maintained gardens. On the lawns nearby, if the weather is tolerable, a drama group might be rehearsing, and other students might be bent over heavy books or laptops. The students are casual, but they look every bit as clean-cut as students in the early 1960s did, as if the intervening forty years of collegiate scruffiness had never happened. Almost all the men shave every day. Their hair is trim and freshly shampooed. Very few students wear tattoos or have had their bodies pierced—so far as one can see—in unapproved places. Many of the women wear skirts, or sundresses when the weather is warm. "I lived an incredibly ragged life," Kathryn Taylor, class of 1974, now an administrator in alumni affairs, told me of her college days. "It never would have dawned on me to try to look nice. They seem to be much more conscious of apparel."

It was only relatively recently that Princeton went coed, but one wouldn't know it. The male students are modern, enlightened men, sensitized since the first grade to apologize for their testosterone. The women are assertive and make a show of self-confidence, especially the athletes. Members of the women's soccer team have T-shirts that read YOUNG, WILD AND READY TO SCORE. Posters advertising a weekend's races say CROSS COUNTRY! IT'S EXCITING TO WATCH SEXY WOMEN RUN!—brashness that would be socially unacceptable if the boys tried it.

The Frist Campus Center is a Neo-Gothic structure, built in 1907, that once housed nuclear experiments. Coats of arms are etched in stone on the façade, from which an imposing statue of Benjamin Franklin looks down at visitors. But that is the old Princeton; the building's ground level has been turned into the up-to-date student center, where rows of computer stations allow students to check their e-mail and where modern banalities have been painted on the walls: "Only by deliberating together about moral questions will we find mutual respect and common ground.—Amy Guttman." "The locusts sang and they were singing for me.—Bob Dylan." "Race matters.—Cornel West." "If I'm not out there training, someone else is.—Lynn Jennings."

Beyond are a billiards room, a set of low chairs where students can read while watching ESPN on a big-screen TV, a kiosk selling Princeton memorabilia, and a convenience store in which you can buy Nantucket Nectars, Arizona green tea with ginseng, raspberry Snapple, and the full array of Gatorade and Powerade, in flavors such as Fierce Melon and Arctic Shatter.

Bulletin boards throughout are festooned with recruiting posters from investment firms. One, from Goldman Sachs, shows a photo of a group of wholesome-looking young people relaxing after a game of lunchtime basketball. The text reads "Wanted: Strategists, Quick Thinkers, Team Players, Achievers." Another, from the business-consulting firm KPMG, shows a picture of a pair of incredibly hip-looking middle-aged people staring warmly into the camera. The text reads "Now that you've made your parents proud, join KPMG and give them something to smile about." It's hard to imagine a recruiting poster of a few decades ago appealing to students' desire to make their parents happy.

Downstairs is a cafeteria with a variety of food stations—pasta, a grill, salads, daily specials. Except that the drinks are not free, it reminded me of the dining hall at Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington. A wall of glass looks out over a lawn. Small groups of happy-looking people—Asian-American kids here, African-American kids there—sit at the tables. They are talking mostly about their workloads, and even their conversational style is polite and slightly formal. "Hello, ladies ..." one young woman calls out to a group of her friends. "How are you?" a young man asks a young woman in greeting. "I'm fine, thanks," she replies. "How are you?"

They're so clean, inside and out. They seem like exactly the sort of young people we older folks want them to be. Baby Boomers may be tempted to utter a little prayer of gratitude: Thank God our kids aren't the royal pains in the ass that we were to our parents.

But the more I talked to them and observed them, the more I realized that the difference between this and preceding generations is not just a matter of dress and comportment. It's not just that these students work harder, are more neatly groomed, and defer to their teachers more readily. There are more-fundamental differences: they have different mental categories.

It takes a while to realize this, because unlike their predecessors, they don't shout out their differences or declare them in political or social movements. In fact, part of what makes them novel is that they don't think they are new. They don't see themselves as a lost generation or a radical generation or a beatnik generation or even a Reaganite generation. They have relatively little generational consciousness. That's because this generation is for the most part not fighting to emancipate itself from the past. The most sophisticated people in preceding generations were formed by their struggle to break free from something. The most sophisticated people in this one aren't.

"On or about December 1910 human character changed," Virginia Woolf famously declared. Gone, she wrote, were the old certainties, the old manners, the deference to nineteenth-century authority. Instead human beings—at least the ones in Woolf's circle—were starting to see the world as full of chaos and discontinuity. Einstein smashed the notion of absolute time and space. Artists from Seurat to Picasso deconstructed visual perceptions. James Joyce's Ulysses scrambled the narrative order of the traditional novel. Rebels upended Victorian sexual mores. And later in the century, when the modernists were exhausted, the postmodernists came along to tell us that life is even more disordered and contingent than even Virginia Woolf could have imagined. Words are detachable from their meanings. History has no grand narratives. Everything is just shifting modes of perception, a maelstrom of change and diversity.

For those growing into adulthood during most of the twentieth century, therefore, the backdrop to life was the loss of faith in coherent systems of thought and morality. Sophisticated people knew they were supposed to rebel against authority, reject old certainties, and liberate themselves from hidebound customs and prejudices. Artists rebelled against the stodgy mores of the bourgeoisie. Radicals rebelled against the commercial and capitalist order. Feminists rebelled against the patriarchal family. And in the latter half of the twentieth century a youth culture emerged, which distilled these themes. Every rock anthem, every fashion statement, every protest gesture, every novel about rebellious youth—from The Catcher in the Rye to On the Road—carried the same cultural message: It's better to be a nonconformist than a conformist, a creative individualist than a member of a group, a rebel than a traditionalist, a daring adventurer than a safe and responsible striver. "We hope for nonconformists among you," the theologian Paul Tillich preached to college audiences in 1957, "for your sake, for the sake of the nation, and for the sake of humanity."

Today's elite college students don't live in that age of rebellion and alienation. They grew up in a world in which the counterculture and the mainstream culture have merged with, and co-opted, each other. For them, it's natural that one of the top administrators at Princeton has a poster of the Beatles album Revolver framed on her office wall. It's natural that hippies work at ad agencies and found organic-ice-cream companies, and that hi-tech entrepreneurs quote Dylan and wear black jeans to work. For them, it's natural that parents should listen to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors—just like kids. They don't have the mental barriers that exist between, say, the establishment and rebels, between respectable society and the subversive underground. For them, all those categories are mushed together. "They work for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and they don't see a contradiction," says Jeffrey Herbst, the politics professor. Moreover, nothing in their environment suggests that the world is ill constructed or that life is made meaningful only by revolt. There have been no senseless bloodbaths like World War I and Vietnam, no crushing economic depressions, no cycles of assassination and rioting to foment disillusionment. They've mostly known parental protection, prosperity, and peace.

During most of the twentieth century the basic ways of living were called into question, but now those fundamental debates are over, at least among the young elite. Democracy and dictatorship are no longer engaged in an epic struggle; victorious democracy is the beneficent and seemingly natural order. No more fundamental arguments pit capitalism against socialism; capitalism is so triumphant that we barely even contemplate an alternative. Radicals no longer assault the American family and the American home; we accept diverse family patterns but celebrate family and community togetherness. The militant feminists of the 1960s are mostly of a grandmotherly age now. Even theological conflicts have settled down; it's fashionable to be religious so long as one is not aggressively so.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "The Trial of the Century?" (October 1995)
In 1927 the Sacco-Vanzetti verdict sparked international protest and raised questions that are still timely. A collection of articles on Sacco-Vanzetti and the American legal system.
Unlike their elders, in other words, these young people are not part of an insurrection against inherited order. They are not even part of the conservative reaction against the insurrection. The debates of the Reagan years are as distant as the trial of the Chicago Seven, which is as distant as the Sacco and Vanzetti case. It's not that they reject one side of that culture war, or embrace the other. They've just moved on. As people in northern California would say, they're living in a different place.

The world they live in seems fundamentally just. If you work hard, behave pleasantly, explore your interests, volunteer your time, obey the codes of political correctness, and take the right pills to balance your brain chemistry, you will be rewarded with a wonderful ascent in the social hierarchy. You will get into Princeton and have all sorts of genuinely interesting experiences open to you. You will make a lot of money—but more important, you will be able to improve yourself. You will be a good friend and parent. You will be caring and conscientious. You will learn to value the really important things in life. There is a fundamental order to the universe, and it works. If you play by its rules and defer to its requirements, you will lead a pretty fantastic life.

Compelled by the Knightly Spirit

ne has to go quite far back to find another group of sophisticated students who took for granted the idea that the universe is a just and orderly place—back to a time before World War I, before modernism, before all the chaos and disruption that Virginia Woolf described. To find another age of such equanimity one has to go back to the Edwardian era and the years leading to World War I. Then, too, a generation of elite students accepted the established order and the life paths it laid out for them. Then, too, people had a sense that there was an underlying biological organization to life—though it had to do with Darwin rather than with DNA. Then, too, elite students idealistically committed themselves to community service, to moral and political reform, while feeling aloof from and generally disgusted by professional politics. Then, too, a pretty rigorous set of social mores regulated behavior—though it had to do with the code of the gentleman, rather than with health and safety concerns and political correctness.

Walking around Princeton, I saw the monuments to that earlier elite, and I couldn't help comparing it with the new one we are creating today. The school has buildings and developments named after some of the men who were students in that era—John Foster Dulles, James Forrestal. The old eating clubs are where the characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald's Princeton dined and drank. It is easy to imagine Professor Woodrow Wilson talking and teaching in the Neo-Gothic buildings.

Of course, in obvious ways the students in those days were very different from the students now. Then they were all male, all white, almost all blue bloods. They were wasp aristocrats, not multicultural meritocrats. Today we congratulate ourselves that our code is so much more enlightened than theirs. We aren't nearly as snobbish as they were, or as anti-Semitic, or as racist, or as sexist. We aren't as closed-minded—or so we tell ourselves.

I've never met anybody who would trade our social order for theirs, who wants to go back to that old Princeton world. And yet ... and yet there are disturbing ghosts around the campus. The old order haunts this one, and whispers that maybe something was lost as well as gained when we sacrificed all for the sake of high achievement, safety, and equal opportunity. In some of the imposing old portraits, for example, I saw a moral gravity and a sense of duty that are missing from the faces of the recent presidents, who look like those friends of your parents who encouraged you to call them by their first names—friendly, unassuming guys in tweed jackets. Those old Princetonians were not professional administrators ministering to professional students. The code of the meritocrat was not their code, and maybe in some ways theirs was the more demanding code. For the most striking contrast between that elite and this one is that its members were relatively unconcerned with academic achievement but went to enormous lengths to instill character. We, on the other hand, place enormous emphasis on achievement but are tongue-tied and hesitant when it comes to what makes for a virtuous life.

The Princeton of that day aimed to take privileged men from their prominent families and toughen them up, teach them a sense of social obligation, based on the code of the gentleman and noblesse oblige. In short, it aimed to instill in them a sense of chivalry.

"You must either discover your duty or else create it and then swear allegiance to its high behests," John Hibben, the president of Princeton, told graduating students in 1915.
Who will prove that the spirit of peace may become the spirit of valor, and assure the solidarity and progress of our nation? Who but the choice men of our land,—the men of exceptional privilege, who by a process of natural selection have passed from one degree of excellence to another in the arduous discipline of mind and character through years of preparation for a life of service ... Centuries ago the knight errant rode forth on the adventure of service to champion the cause of the weak and the wronged wherever they might be found. For him there was no clear call to any definite undertaking, but compelled by the knightly spirit, he resolutely set himself to seek undiscovered duty somewhere beyond the far horizon.
Princeton did have some Bible classes as a means of teaching virtue and character, but one has the sense that the school didn't really believe these things could be taught in the classroom. Documents from those days reveal a much denser social fabric at Princeton, and it was in the social sphere that the really important lessons were learned. There were more customs, dances, processions, and bonfires; they created a setting in which students competed for glory, for the laurels of being known as a big man on campus. (I asked today's Princeton students who the BMOCs were, and many didn't even know what the term meant. Those who did said that the concept didn't apply to their Princeton.)

Students in those days passed through harrowing extracurricular challenges and ordeals. There were clubs to compete for, hazing rituals to endure, brutal combats to win. Life at Princeton was a series of tests designed to cultivate manliness and determination. Each year, for example, the freshman and sophomore classes would stage a snowball fight. The library archives contain a picture of three Princeton freshmen after one such fight. Their eyes are swollen shut, their lips are broken open, they have contusions across their cheeks and signs of broken noses and broken jaws.

The primary virtue that Princeton tried to instill, in exhortation after exhortation, was courage. "Teaching men manhood" was one of the important tasks of Harvard, a professor wrote in that school's alumni magazine in 1902. John Hibben, who was a representative figure of his age, told a Princeton alumni group in 1913,
It would be pitiful indeed if we were constrained to confess in reference to our graduates, as Homer stated of the Trojan hero,—"He came forsooth to battle in golden attire like a girl." Homer also adds that this unprepared warrior was met by Achilles, who slew him and robbed him of his wealth. We must fit men to work and to fight for our day, and to be ready when called to devote their fighting powers to that cause of righteousness which appeals to them as their particular vocation.
Of course, one form of ordeal reigned above all others: football. When John Hibben was president and F. Scott Fitzgerald was an undergraduate, one Princeton football star personified the ideals of the age—manly courage, duty, courtesy, honor, and service. He was Hobart Amory Hare Baker, a young man who wouldn't have a prayer of being admitted to Princeton today. Hobey Baker was born into a prominent but not particularly affluent Main Line Philadelphia family on January 15, 1892. After his parents divorced, he was sent off to St. Paul's School, where he became a legendary athlete. He arrived at Princeton in 1910, preceded by his reputation. He was only five feet nine inches and 160 pounds, but he was thickly muscled. He could walk downstairs on his hands, and he entertained his friends by jiggling his back muscles in time to a song. He once won a bet that he could walk from Princeton to New York City in ten hours. He was extraordinarily handsome, from a distance looking a bit like the Duke of Windsor, though he was sturdier and more muscular, with symmetrical features and a crown of blond hair that seemed never to fall out of place. He was also a meticulous dresser.

Baker appears in Fitzgerald's novel This Side of Paradise, as the "slim and defiant" football captain, Allenby, who is the embodiment of manly grace, casually aware that "this year the hopes of the college rested on him." Baker was the star of both the football team and the hockey team. In those days both games were different. Football was more defensive, slower but more savage. There was no passing. Teams would trade punts, hoping to get slight advantages in field position. The key play was the punt return. Baker would position himself a few yards behind where the punt was to land so that he could get a running start and catch the ball at a full sprint. He didn't wear a helmet. It became a cliché to compare him to Sir Galahad, the solitary knight charging bravely into the breach.

There were no bureaucratized university sports programs or athletic scholarships or professional coaching in Baker's day. The games were more like medieval tournaments, ordeals in which the young men of the governing classes could build character and cultivate manly courage. Fatalities were relatively common in collegiate football until President Theodore Roosevelt—the epitome of the upper-class manly man—tried to instill some restraint. Speaking for the age, Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard, declared that "effeminacy and luxury are even worse evils than brutality"; sports could transform "a stooping, weak, and sickly youth into [a] well-formed robust" one.

Hobey Baker was at least as famous for his sportsmanship as for his athletic prowess. Though opposing teams often tried to injure him, he never retaliated; he had two penalties called on him in his entire college hockey career, both hotly contested. He went to the opposing locker room after each game to thank his rivals for a good match. "Nothing was quite so characteristic as his acute modesty," his biographer, John Davies, wrote in The Legend of Hobey Baker (1966). "He was always polite and obliging, except when talk got around to his athletic exploits, and then he could be curt and even difficult."

Continued
1 | 2 | 3 | 4

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.


Illustrations by Tim O'Brien.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2001; The Organization Kid - 01.04; Volume 287, No. 4; page 40-54.