The Two Generations

IT is always interesting to see ourselves through the eyes of others, even though that view may be most unflattering. The recent ‘ Letter to the Rising Generation.' 1 if I may judge from the well-thumbed and underscored copy of the Atlantic which I picked up in the College Library, has been read with keen interest by many of my fellows, and doubtless, too, with a more emphatic approval, by our elders. The indictment of an entire generation must at its best be a difficult task, but the author of the article has performed it with considerable circumspection, skirting warily the vague and the abstract, and passing from the judge’s bench to the pulpit with a facility that indicates that justice is to be tempered with mercy. The rather appalling picture which she draws of past generations holding their breath to see what my contemporaries will make of themselves suggests, too, that we are still on probation, and so before final judgment is passed, it may be pertinent to attempt, if not, from the hopeless nature of the case, a defense, at least, an extenuation of ourselves.

The writer’s charge is pretty definite. It is to the effect that the rising generation in its reaction upon life and the splendid world which has been handed down to it shows a distinct softening of human fibre, spiritual, intellectual, and physical, in comparison with the generations which have preceded it. The most obvious retort to this is, of course, that the world in which we find ourselves is in no way of our own making, so that if our reactions to it are unsatisfactory, or our rebellious attitude toward it distressing, it is at least a plausible assumption that the world itself, despite the responsible care which the passing generation bestowed upon it, may be partly to blame.

But this, after all, is only begging the question. The author herself admits that we are the victims of educational experiments, and, in any event, each generation is equally guiltless of its world. We recognize with her that the complexity of the world we face only makes more necessary our bracing up for the fray. Her charge that we are not doing this overlooks, however, certain aspects of the situation which go far to explain our seemingly deplorable qualities.

The most obvious fact which presents itself in this connection is that the rising generation has practically brought itself up. School discipline, since the abolition of corporal punishment, has become almost nominal; church discipline practically nil; and even home discipline, although retaining the forms, is but an empty shell. The modern child from the age of ten is almost his own ‘boss.’ The helplessness of the modern parent face to face with these conditions is amusing. What generation but the one to which our critic belongs could have conceived of ‘mothers’ clubs’conducted by the public schools, in order to teach mothers how to bring up their children! The modern parent has become a sort of Parliament registering the decrees of a Grand Monarque, and occasionally protesting, though usually without effect, against a particularly drastic edict.

I do not use this assertion as a text for an indictment of the preceding generation; I am concerned, like our critic, only with results. These are a peculiarly headstrong and individualistic character among the young people, and a complete bewilderment on the part of the parents. The latter frankly do not understand their children, and their lack of understanding and of control over them means a lack of the moral guidance which, it has always been assumed, young people need until they are safely launched in the world. The two generations misunderstand each other as they never did before, This fact is a basal one to any comprehension of the situation.

Now let us see how the rising generation brings itself up. It is perfectly true that the present-day secondary education, that curious fragmentary relic of a vitally humanistic age, does not appeal to them. They will tell you frankly that they do not see any use in it. Having brought themselves up, they judge utility by their own standards, and not by those of others. Might not the fact that past generations went with avidity to their multiplication table, their Latin grammar, and their English Bible, whereas the rising generation does not, imply that the former found some intellectual sustenance in those things which the latter fails to find? The appearance of industrial education on the field, and the desperate attempts of educational theory to make the old things palatable, which fifty years ago were gulped down raw, argues, too, that there may be a grain of truth in our feeling. Only after a serious examination of our intellectual and spiritual viands should our rejection of them be attributed to a disordered condition of our stomachs.

The author’s charge that the rising generation betrays an extraordinary love of pleasure is also true. The four years’ period of high-school life among the children of the comfortable classes, is, instead of being a preparation for life, literally one round of social gayety. But it is not likely that this is because former generations were less eager for pleasure, but rather because they were more rigidly repressed by parents and custom, while their energy was directed into other channels, religious, for instance. But now, with every barrier removed, we have the unique spectacle of a youthful society where there is perfectly free intercourse, an unforced social life of equals, in which there are bound to develop educative influences of profound significance. Social virtues will be learned better in such a society than they can ever be from moral precepts. An important result of this camaraderie is that the boy’s and the girl’s attitude toward life, their spiritual outlook, has come to be the same. The line between the two ‘spheres’ has long disappeared in the industrial classes; it is now beginning to fade among the comfortable classes.

Our critic has not seen that this avidity for pleasure is a natural ebullition which, flaring up naturally, within a few years as naturally subsides. It goes, too, without that ennui of overstimulation; and the fact that it has been will relieve us of the rising generation from feeling that envy which invariably creeps into the tone of the passing generation when they say, ‘We did not go such a pace when we were young.’ After this period of pleasure has begun to subside, there ensues for those who have not been prematurely forced into industry, a strange longing for independence. This feeling is most striking among the girls of the rising generation, and crops up in the most unexpected places, in families in the easiest circumstances, where to the preceding generation the idea of caring to do anything except stay at home and get married, if possible, would have been inconceivable. They want somehow to feel that they are standing on their own feet. Like their brothers, they begin to chafe under the tutelage, nominal though it is, of the home. As a result, these daughters of the comfortable classes go into trained nursing, an occupation which twenty years ago was deemed hardly respectable; or study music, or do settlement work, or even public-school teaching. Of course, girls who have had to earn their own living have long done these things; the significant point is that the late rapid increase in these professions comes from those who have a comfortable niche in society all prepared for them. I do not argue that this proves any superior quality of character on the part of this generation, but it does at least fail to suggest a desire to lead lives of ignoble sloth.

The undergraduate feels this spirit, too. He often finds himself vaguely dissatisfied with what he has acquired, and yet does not quite know what else would have been better for him. He stands on the threshold of a career, with a feeling of boundless possibility, and yet often without a decided bent toward any particular thing. One could do almost anything were one given the opportunity, and yet, after all, just what shall one do? Our critic has some very hard things to say about this attitude. She attributes it to an egotistic philosophy, imperfectly absorbed. But may it not rather be the result of that absence of repression in our bringing-up, of that rigid moulding which made our grandfathers what they were?

It must be remembered that we of the rising generation have to work this problem out all alone. Pastors, teachers, and parents flutter aimlessly about with their ready-made formulas, but somehow these are less efficacious than they used to be. I doubt if any generation was ever thrown quite so completely on its own resources as ours is. Through it all, the youth as well as the girl feels that he wants to count for something in life. His attitude, which seems so egotistical to his elders, is the result of this and of a certain expansive outlook, rather than any love of vain-glory. He has never known what it was to be moulded, and he shrinks a little perhaps from going through that process. The traditional professions have lost some of their automatic appeal. They do conventionalize, and furthermore, the youth, looking at many of their representatives, the men who ‘ count ’ in the world to-day, may be pardoned if he feels sometimes as if he did not want to count in just that way. The youth ‘who would not take special training because it would interfere with his sacred individuality’ is an unfair caricature of this weighing, testing attitude toward the professions. The elder generation should remember that it is no longer the charted sea that it was to our grandfathers, and be accordingly lenient with us of the rising generation.

Business, to the youth standing on the threshold of life, presents a similar dilemma. Too often it seems like a choice between the routine of a mammoth impersonal corporation, and chicanery of one kind or another, or the living by one’s wits within the pale of honesty. The predatory individualist, the‘hard-as-nails’ specimen, does exist, of course, but we are justified in ignoring him here; for, however much his tribe may increase, it is certain that it will not be his kind, but the more spiritually sensitive, the amorphous ones of the generation, who will impress some definite character upon the age, and ultimately count for good or evil, as asocial force. With these latter, it should be noted, that, although this is regarded as a mercenary age, the question of gain, to an increasingly large number, has little to do with the final decision.

The economic situation in which we find ourselves, and to which not only the free, of whom we have been speaking, but also the unfree of the rising generation are obliged to react, is perhaps the biggest factor in explaining our character. In this reaction the rising generation has a very real feeling of coming straight up against a wall of diminishing opportunity. I do not see how it can be denied that practical opportunity is less for this generation than it has been for those preceding it. The man of fifty years ago, if he was intellectually inclined, was able to get his professional training at small expense, and usually under the personal guidance of his elders; if commercially inclined, he could go into a small, settled, self-respecting business house, practically a profession in itself and a real school of character. If he had a broader outlook, there was the developing West for him, or the growing industrialism of the East. It looks, at least from this distance, as if opportunity were easy for that generation. They had the double advantage of being more circumscribed in their outlook, and of possessing more ready opportunity at hand.

But these times have passed forever. Nowadays, professional training is lengthy and expensive; independent business requires big capital for success; and there is no more West. It is still as true as ever that the exceptional man will always ‘get there,’ but now it is likely to be only the exceptional man, whereas formerly all the able ‘got there,’ too. The only choice for the vast majority of the young men of to-day is between being swallowed up in the routine of a big corporation, and experiencing the vicissitudes of a small business, which is now an uncertain, rickety affair, usually living by its wits, in the hands of men who are forced to subordinate everything to self-preservation, and in which the employee’s livelihood is in constant jeopardy. The growing consciousness of this situation explains many of the peculiar characteristics of our generation.

It has a direct bearing on the question of responsibility. Is it not sound doctrine that one becomes responsible only by being made responsible for something? Now, what incentive to responsibility is produced by the industrial life of to-day? In the small business there is the frank struggle for gain between employer and employee, a contest of profits vs, wages, each trying to get the utmost possible out of the other. The only kind of responsibility that this can possibly breed is the responsibility for one’s own subsistence. In the big business, the employee is simply a small part of a big machine; his work counts for so little that he can rarely be made to feel any intimate responsibility for it.

Then, too, our haphazard industrial system offers such magnificent opportunities to a young man to get into the wrong place. He is forced by necessity to go early, without the least training or interest, into the first thing which offers itself. The dull, specialized routine of the modern shop or office, so different from the varied work and the personal touch which created interest in the past, is the last thing on earth that will mould character or produce responsibility. When the situation with an incentive appears, however, we are as ready as any generation, I believe, to meet it.

I have seen too many young men, of the usual futile bringing-up and negligible training, drift idly about from one ‘job’ to another, without apparent ambition, until something happened to be presented to them which had a spark of individuality about it, whereupon they faced about and threw themselves into the task with an energy that brought success and honor, — I have seen too much of this not to wonder, somewhat impiously perhaps, whether this boasted character of our fathers was not rather the result of their coming into contact with the proper stimulus at the proper time, than of any tougher, grittier strain in their spiritual fibre. Those among our elders, who, deploring Socialism, insist so strenuously on the imperfections of human nature, ought not to find fault with the theory that frail humanity is under the necessity of receiving the proper stimulus before developing a good character or becoming responsible.

Nor is the rising generation any the less capable of effort when conditions call it forth. I wonder how our critic accounts for the correspondence schools which have sprung up so abundantly within the past fifteen years. They are patronized by large numbers of young men and women who have had little academic training and have gone early into industry. It is true that the students do not spend their time on the Latin grammar; they devote themselves to some kind of technical course which they have been led to believe will qualify them for a better position. But the fact that they are thus willing to devote their spare time to study certainly does not indicate a lack of effort. Rather, it is the hardest kind of effort, for it is directed toward no immediate end, and, more than that, it is superimposed on the ordinary work, which is usually quite arduous enough to fatigue the youth.

Young apprentices in any branch where there is some kind of technical or artistic appeal, such as mechanics or architecture, show an almost incredible capacity of effort, often spending, as I have seen them do, whole days over problems. I know too a young man who, appointed very young to political office, found that the law would be useful to him, and travels every evening to a near-by city to take courses. His previous career had been most inglorious, well calculated by its aimlessness to ruin any ‘character’; but the incentive was applied, and he proved quite capable of putting forth a surprising amount of steady effort.

Our critics are perhaps misled by the fact that these young men do not announce with a blare of trumpets that they are about to follow in the footsteps of an Edison or a Webster. It must be admitted that even such men as I have cited do still contrive to work into their time a surprising amount of pleasure. But the whole situation shows conclusively, I think, that our author has missed the point when she says that the rising generation shows a real softening of the human fibre. It is rather that we have the same reserves of ability and effort, but that from the complex nature of the economic situation these reserves are not unlocked so early or so automatically as with former generations.

The fact that our fathers did not need correspondence schools or night schools, or such things, implies either that they were not so anxious as we to count in the world, or that success was an easier matter in their day, either of which conclusions furnishes a pretty good extenuation of our own generation. We cannot but believe that our difficulties are greater in this generation; it is difficult to see that the effort we put forth to overcome these difficulties is not proportional to that increase. I am aware that to blame your surroundings when the fault lies in your own character is the one impiety which rouses the horror of present-day moral teachers. Can it not count to us for good, then, that most of us, while coming theoretically to believe that this economic situation explains so much of our trouble, yet continue to act as if our deficiencies were all our own fault?

Our critic is misled by the fact that we do not talk about unselfishness and self-sacrifice and duty, as her generation apparently used to do, into thinking that we do not know what these things mean. It is true that we do not fuss and fume about our souls, or tend our characters like a hot-house plant. This is a changing, transitional age, and our view is outward rather than inward. In an age of newspapers, free libraries, and cheap magazines, we necessarily get a broader horizon than the passing generation had. We see what is going on in the world, and we get the clash of different points of view, to an extent which was impossible to our fathers. We cannot be blamed for acquiring a suspicion of ideals, which, however powerful their appeal once was, seem singularly impotent now, or if we seek for motive forces to replace them, or for new terms in which to restate the world. We have an eagerness to understand the world in which we live that amounts almost to a passion. We want to get behind the scenes, to see how the machinery of the modern world actually works. We are curious to learn what other people are thinking, and to get at the forces that have produced their point of view. We dabble in philanthropy as much from curiosity to see how people live as from any feeling of altruism. We read all sorts of strange philosophies to get the personal testimony of men who are interpreting the world. In the last analysis, we have a passion to understand why people act as they do.

We have, as a result, become impatient with the conventional explanations of the older generation. We have retained from childhood the propensity to see through things, and to tell the truth with startling frankness. This must, of course, be very disconcerting to a generation, so much of whose activity seems to consist in glossing over the unpleasant things or hiding the blemishes on the fair face of civilization. There are too many issues evaded which we would like to meet. Many of us find, sooner or later, that the world is a very different sort of place from what our carefully deodorized and idealized education would have us believe.

When we find things simply not as they are painted, is it any wonder that we turn to the new prophets rather than to the old? We are more than half confident that the elder generation does not itself really believe all the conventional ideals which it seeks to force upon us, and much of our presumption is a result of the contempt we naturally feel for such timorousness. Too many of your preachers seem to be whistling simply to keep up your courage. The plain truth is that the younger generation is acquiring a positive faith, in contact with which the nerveless negations of the elder generation feel their helplessness without knowing just what to do about it except to scold the young.

This positive aspect is particularly noticeable in the religion of the rising generation. As our critic says, the religious thinking of the preceding generation was destructive and uncertain. We are demanding a definite faith, and our spiritual centre is rapidly shifting from the personal to the social in religion. Not personal salvation, but social; not our own characters, but the character of society, is our interest and concern. We feel social injustice as our fathers felt personal sin. Settlement work and socialist propaganda, things done fifty years ago only by rare and heroic souls like Kingsley, Ruskin, and Maurice, are now the commonplaces of the undergraduate.

The religion that will mean anything to the rising generation will be based on social ideals. An essay like ex-President Eliot’s ‘Religion of the Future,’ which in a way synthesizes science and history and these social ideals and gives them the religious tinge which every age demands, supplies a real working religious platform to many a young man and woman of the rising generation, and an inspiration of which our elders can form no conception. Perhaps it is unfair to call this religion at all. Perhaps it is simply the scientific attitude toward the world. But I am sure that it is more than this; I am sure that it is the scientific attitude tinged with the religious that will be ours of the rising generation. We find that we cannot keep apart our religion, our knowledge, our practice, and our hopes in water-tight compartments, as our ancestors did. We are beginning to show an incorrigible tendency to work our spiritual assimilations into one intelligible, constructive whole.

It is to this attitude rather than to a softening of fibre that I think we may lay our growing disinclination to deify sacrifice and suffering. A young chemistry student said to me the other day, ‘Science means that nothing must be wasted!’ This idea somehow gets mixed up with human experience, and we come to believe that human life and happiness are things that must not be wasted. Might it not be that such a belief that human waste of life and happiness was foolish and unnecessary would possibly be of some avail in causing that waste to disappear? And one of the most inspiring of the prophets to the rising generation, William James, has told us that certain ‘moral equivalents’ of these things are possible which will prevent that incurable decaying of fibre which the elder generation so anxiously fears.

Another result of this attitude is our growing belief in political machinery. We are demanding of our preachers that they reduce quality to quantity. ‘Stop talking about liberty and justice and love, and show us institutions, or concerted attempts to model institutions that shall be free or just or lovely,’ we cry. You have been trying so long to reform the world by making men ‘good,’ and with such little success, that we may be pardoned if we turn our attention to the machinery of society, and give up for a time the attempt to make the operators of that machinery strictly moral. We are disgusted with sentimentality. Indeed, the charm of Socialism to so many of the rising generation is just that scientific aspect of it, its claim of historical basis, and its very definite and concrete organization for the attainment of its ends. A philosophy which gives an illuminating interpretation of the present, and a vision of the future, with a definitely crystallized plan of action with concrete methods, however unsound it may all be, can hardly be said to appeal simply to the combination of ‘a weak head, a soft heart, and a desire to shirk.’

Placed in such a situation as we are, and with such an attitude toward the world, we are as interested as you and the breathless generations behind you to see what destinies we shall work out for ourselves. An unpleasantly large proportion of our energy is now drained off in fighting the fetishes which you of the elder generation have passed along to us, and which, out of some curious instinct of self-preservation, you so vigorously defend. We, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly doubtful whether you believe in yourselves quite so thoroughly as you would have us think. Your words are very brave, but the tone is hollow. Your mistrust of us, and your reluctance to convey over to us any of your authority in the world, looks a little too much like the fear and dislike that doubt always feels in the presence of conviction, to be quite convincing. We believe in ourselves; and this fact, we think, is prophetic for the future. We have an indomitable feeling that we shall attain, or if not, that we shall pave the way for a generation that shall attain.

Meanwhile our constructive work is hampered by your distrust, while you blame us for our lack of accomplishment. Is this an attitude calculated to increase our responsibility and our self-respect? Would it not be better in every way, more constructive and more fruitful, to help us in our aspirations and endeavors, or, failing that, at least to strive to understand just what those aspirations and endeavors are?

  1. The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1911.