Yearning for Security
Give us orthodoxy and tell us what to do is the attitude which OSCAR HANDLIN, Associate Professor of History at Harvard, finds in the present-day college student. “The college is muggy with modest ambitions,”Professor Handlin writes; “the little dreams are not of wealth or fame or monumental accomplishments, but of bureaucrats’ offices in government or the corporations.”An authority on American social and economic history, Professor Handlin is the author of This Was America, published by Harvard University Press in 1919.
by OSCAR HANDLIN
THE girls seem the more concerned. Where will all this leave them? The boys know the answer. It may be the draft will close in or else universal service will draw them away. There will be a job to do and they will do it competently. The thought of protest, even of questions, seems not to occur to them. This is the order of a world they accept.
We who remember another world, before the war, are uneasy in the face of their acquiescence. We expect of these young people something other than their complete passivity. But we look in vain for the gesture of resistance as they lose control of a good part of their lives.
Not that we are ourselves particularly eager to throw up the barricades. Indeed, as we move on toward our forties, the group of us seems to grow increasingly conservative. But that, we feel, is a prerogative of our advance into middle age. It is not right that these our juniors should surpass us in attachment to the status quo. We think nostalgically of our own stormy youth of fifteen years ago and shake our collective heads. We cannot understand why these boys and girls, as young now as we were then, pass by the excitement and risk — of experiment, of protest, of revolt.
I suppose we are uncomfortable partly by way of personal justification. If they are right now, does not that imply that we were wrong then? And since we retain an emotional attachment to that past of ours, we cannot admit that we were then wrong.
But there is also a deeper level to our uneasiness. For we grew up to think with Emerson that America is the country of young men. That was part of our heritage of optimism, of our faith in progress. A society that believed in inevitable improvement, that judged tomorrow always better than yesterday, necessarily ascribed a special virtue to youth, less constricted by the errors of the past, more responsive to the opportunities of the future. It was proper that the young should rise up against the old; experience would always justify the rebellion. In fact, the old rather expected that this would happen and could enjoy their own relaxed stability because they knew someone else labored under the burden of progress. Perhaps we in our group resent this present generation so much because we fear they are stealing from us the leisure of our conservatism. How can we sit by if they too accept the status quo, and if no one pushes forward?
I remember once in 1946, just after the veterans came back to the university in large numbers, we tried to put into words what seemed to us the dominant characteristics of this generation. Invariably our discussion took the form of a comparison with our own generation of the 1930s and with that which had preceded us ten years earlier.
Well, the lost generation of the first post-war we knew through its impact upon us. In a sense that group of the early 1920’s was disillusioned; it thought it had been betrayed, sacrificed for hollow slogans. It was very much aware of reality and of the limitations of its own powers. But nevertheless it held to kinds of faith that were very important to us who followed it.
The men of that generation had a great certainty as to the intrinsic worth of what they were doing. The artists and the novelists, like the teachers and physicians, like the businessmen even, then felt no need to justify their callings by any extrinsic standards; and that gave their work a sense of great authenticity . What they did, those people believed, was worth doing for its own sake, because their doing it expressed their own individuality.
In retrospect, that seemed to us to have been the unique quality of that earlier generation. It cherished its own personality, and for that reason it indulged in eccentricities of many sorts, trumpeted its own ingenuous discovery of sex, felt outraged by prohibition— indeed by any sham that seemed to derogate from the dignity of the individual. The surface disillusionment and the skepticism about forms concealed only dimly a genuine faith. It was no accident that the two books of great meaning for that generation — Ulysses and The Great Gatsby — both ended with a series of mighty affirmations.
In our own youth, we came to take those affirmations for granted —so much so that we then minimized the achievements of our predecessors and were more likely to criticize what they had left undone than to value what they had done.
Mainly, the burden of our complaint was that the men of the 1920s had been too much concerned with the isolated individual, too little with man as a social being. While we too cherished self-development, free expression, and personal dignity, we regarded a failure in the social system as the chief impediment to those ends, and we looked to planning as the corrective. The humanitarian energies on which the New Deal drew were generated by the confidence that men did have the power so to mold their social environment as to create an adequate setting within which they could attain full realization of their personal capacities. That was the meaning we then imparted to social justice.
In the generation of the 1930s as in that of the 1920s, the logic of their situation supplied young people with a drive that made them willing to struggle. They were realists all right, believed in economic determinism or dialectical materialism, in behaviorism or Freudianism. There was no inclination among them to accept any comfortable transcendentalism that offered man an easy nobility. But their realism left room for venturesomeness; indeed, realism seemed to demand experiment and nonconformity.
IT WAS against this image of ourselves that we were disposed to judge this present generation. We were at first well impressed. The veterans who returned to college struck us as mature and earnest; they worked hard and got good grades. (We tended to forget that they were older and that this was the pick of a five-year crop.) But we quickly came to realize that all this earnestness and effort was directed toward a very meager goal. Reluctantly but inexorably, we arrived at the conclusion that these young men and women were earnestly working toward a riskless security and, to attain it, were willing to sink into a dull conformity.
I remember being shocked when I caught a glimpse of their own visions of their futures. The lad who hoped to be a doctor looked forward to getting onto the staff of some institution, to live, as he said, without problems and with a salary. On a questionnaire, the graduate students put down what they expected to be after twenty years; with amazement we saw their ideal: the administrator-dean. The college, we discovered, was muggy with modest ambitions; the little dreams were not of wealth or fame or monumental accomplishments, but of bureaucrats’ offices in government or the corporations.
In a way, we explained this poverty of aspiration as the product of a yearning for security. We could understand that. But we could not understand why these youngsters were all the time making matters more difficult for themselves. If they worried about the future, why did they take on obligations so casually? To us they seemed to marry, bear children, recklessly, without forethought or concern; and statistics which showed a steady drop in the age of marriage and a steady rise in the birth rate bore us out. The answer was, we concluded, that they did not regard these as obligations; somehow, someone would provide. Meanwhile, they settled easily into the ruts they dug for themselves, expecting to spend out the rest of their lives undisturbed.
Like everyone else. Not willing consciously to take on risks, the young people showed no inclination to deviate from established patterns. Their minds ran to motorcars and suburban bungalows. As students they read thoroughly what was assigned them, but were not inclined to be adventuresome or heretic. In discussion they were eminently docile.
Partly, they conformed because it was dangerous not to. They knew that those who dealt out the office space in government and industry were not likely to discriminate among types of radicalism, that a red glow was reflected from every heterodox idea. Still, there seemed to be no objection, certainly no rebellion, against these pressures toward like-mindedness.
On the contrary, this generation welcomed the shackles of orthodoxy — all those eager faces looking up at the platform, waiting to be told what to believe. There was a delight in dogma; know the authorities, accept the classics, and wash your problems away. What did youth say when it spoke up to the educators.”In a broadcast last year the chairman of the Yale Daily News bemoaned his instructor’s lack of enthusiasm for free enterprise. His warning was explicit.: Stop stirring up those nagging doubts or we’ll tell the trustees on you (and everyone knows where the money comes from).
When I hurled these charges at groups of them, they sat back complacently. What I intended as epithets, they took as compliments. Pleased, they would tell me they were so well adjusted because they were better brought up. Their parents read Gesell and saved them from frustrations.
Why was this generation which had been so ill used, which had so many grievances — why was it so lacking in youthful energies?
From time to time, in these years, various ideas have come to us. At first, when the shadow of the great war loomed largest, we ascribed these effects to the nature of the group’s participation in the conflict. These boys had gone in and out of uniform with a curious sense of detachment.
About war in general, they had acquired no strong opinions, nor about the next war in particular. They were not convinced that another conflict was avoidable, nor that it was inevitable. They certainly had no feeling that they could do anything about it. They would take it if it came; meanwhile they wished to get as far with their personal lives as possible.
Korea came to them with the uneventfulness of a monthly bill in the mail. Those eligible for the draft or enrolled in the reserves felt more concern than the others whose obligations had already been cleared. But there was nowhere an expressed consciousness of the great social and intellectual issues involved, nowhere any insistence that youth had a special stake in the matter, a special claim to be heard.
We would not deny, as we discussed it, that a decade of involvement in war on these terms would generate apathy among the young. But we were not content to accept this as a total explanation. Granted that the years of conflict were such a decisive breach, were there no pre-war paths this generation could have taken up? In any case, why was it so inadequately prepared for today’s great crisis?
With some reluctance we began to suspect there had been some original fault in the liberal tradition of our own times, some fault that accounted both for the inadequacies of youth and also for the slow death of that tradition itself since 1939. It became clearer, as we understood more of what had happened, that our own liberalism had not known how to face up to the challenge of totalitarianism. Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, the war itself, were the evidence; and peace added the Soviet Union.
From the point of view of those who reached maturity in the years of our successive defeats, there was not much attractive in our liberalism. Our great victories had come in domestic policy, but events increasingly gave primacy to foreign affairs. And in foreign affairs was written only the record of our failures.
A fellow who came out of the army in 1945 would think of liberalism in terms of the struggle for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination of the year before; he would seek to take up the tradition in the pages of the Nation and New Republic. To chart the course those journals had taken in the ten years before would not inspire the veteran with enthusiasm; and to trace the eccentric gyrations of Mr. Wallace would lead no one to the conviction that in liberalism was any present saving grace.
The tragic divorce of youth from liberalism was illustrated for us by the decay of the organized youth movements. In our time, young people had been persons of consequence, courted by politicians, consulted by statesmen, active as auxiliaries in the labor movement. The organizations of greatest consequence had been controlled from within the age group. This favorable situation has now collapsed. Washington would be as little inclined to regard the ideas of youth as youth is to look for ideas in Washington. The old associations have fallen apart — some disrupted by Communist infiltration, others simply through the weight of their own inertia and their seeming lack of relevance to the times. Even the veterans of this generation seem disinclined to do much for themselves. The A.V.C. has not managed to evoke substantial response; generally the demobilized young man prefers to let the old-line hacks of the Legion and the V.F.W. do the job for him.
So, for a long time we said, Well, the war; and hoped that as the war receded, we would come back to where we were before. When the first group of nonveterans turned up and were the same, we said, Well, their education was skimped; after all, what perspective would they have acquired, going through high school in the war? But already before Korea, these explanations were sticking in our throats. Now certainly it’s time, and more, that youth should have asserted itself.
Against our will, really, we are drawn to the conclusion that some deeper change is involved. We begin to fear the divide is deep, reaches down to some fundamental alteration in our society. Now and then, for instance, it occurs to us that there is something familiar about the call for security, about which we complain in them; we hear in it the echo of what we were ourselves saying fifteen years ago. Was this not a key word in the strivings of the New Deal in both domestic and foreign policy?
Only, we insist, to us this was not an end but a means. We never surrendered individualism to Mr. Hoover, but hoped, perhaps recklessly, that a foundation of security at the base of the social structure would unloose creative individual energies through the rest of it. If we fought for unemployment insurance or farm relief or industrial unionism, it was not to plunge a large part of the population into complacency, but to ease destructive fears so that men could turn their energies toward other ends.
Looking back now, we acknowledge that it may have been our fault that we thought so little of those other ends — so little that this generation, which was not immediately involved in our struggle, can see as ideals only the means for which we battled.
Yet they need not have fallen into that confusion. Our least certain speculations revolve about the question of why they did. Always we come back to an underlying doubt: perhaps it is not youth that has changed, but the situation of youth; not they, but the world we made for them.
If Emerson’s America was the country of young men because it believed in progress and had faith in itself, has our America ceased to be the country of young men because it has lost confidence and no longer believes in itself?