The Courage of the Young
President of Barnard College since 1952, MILLICENT C. MCINTOSH started her career as a teacher, first at Rosemary Hall and then at Bryn Mawr. She was headmistress of the Brearley School for seventeen years before becoming Dean of Barnard College in 1947. Wife of a doctor and mother of five, she knows intimately the problems that challenge young married students today.
THE impulse to criticize the young in our complex, guilt-ridden age has attained a new intensity. To implement our complaints we have used the press, the modern magazine, the psychologist, and the academic survey. We have uttered and published many words of analysis, of despairing comment and complacent conclusion. Perhaps we should first try to understand the framework in which our children have grown up.
We seem to forget that we have lived through a revolution in manners and morals as well as in world politics. Those of us who were brought up in the first quarter of the century have our roots in a universe now obsolete. My own youth was spent in a world of secure values, social, political, and religious. We were trained to believe in progress, in the absolute nature of right and wrong, in our responsibility to work for social justice and peace. It was not until after World War I that we began to be aware of the weakening of the pillars on which our world was sustained.
One great disenchantment after another came to my “virtuous” and rather smug generation. The realization that the world had not been made safe for democracy by the war produced a tremendous disillusionment; this was enhanced by the loss of faith in the meaning of absolute right and wrong, as a result of the advancement of science and the Freudian ethic. Our carefully brought-up young people threw over the traces, abandoned their religious beliefs, and took to hip flasks, raccoon coats, and jalopies. Our economy collapsed in 1929, and during the thirties many marriages ended in the divorce courts. The Depression, World War II, the development of the atomic bomb, and the rise of the Soviet Union to power — this desperate succession of events has brought the twentieth century to a terrible climax.
Into this world have been born our present teenagers, our college students, and our young married couples. There is little wonder that they look at life differently from the way we did. Will their behavior prove to be sound in building personality and family life, or will it result in emotional disaster and will their marriages end in divorce? Is it true that young people have few moral and religious ideals and that they are interested only in pleasure, security, and a comfortable life? Are they poorly educated, lacking in initiative, and unwilling to take responsibility in these difficult times?
Let us consider the last and the simplest of these questions. Young Americans from twenty to thirty are, in my opinion, better educated than their elders, even though they have not studied as much Latin and many of them cannot spell. They have read more about a wider variety of subjects; they have traveled more; they know more kinds of people and have a greater understanding of other economic and social groups and of other countries They are well read in European literature, of which we knew nothing, except by hearsay, in the first quarter of the century. They know classical literature and philosophy, and at the least are aware of the Middle and Far East. They travel by bicycle and on foot; they hitchhike (even the girls) through Europe; they live in youth hostels and rub elbows with young people from all over the world.
When the present undergraduate receives an A.B. degree in the United States, he has submitted to infinitely more rigorous standards than did his parents. It is often much harder for him to get into college; and in order to graduate, he has usually met a more stringent set of requirements — in foreign languages, in general education, in science, and in specialized or honors work in his major. At our best institutions the gentleman’s C is not regarded with favor; if a boy begins to waste his college years in pleasant and idle living, he may be asked to leave or, at best, to stay out of college for a year, so that he can grow up to his academic potentialities.
What about the undergraduate’s social attitudes during this period? Have he and his fellows a sense of responsibility toward other people, and do they show any desire to build a better world? Many people think No; I would say Yes, but their desire is very different from the complacent one felt by their parents, when young, to uplift the unfortunate.
Our children are not content with a legal framework which is designed to establish an equitable framework for society. To them it is intolerable that there should be people who are starving, or ill-clothed, or discriminated against because of their race or their economic background. There is ample evidence of their concern: in intercollegiate conferences, held on a far more mature level than we as students could ever attain; in student work camps in underprivileged areas over the world; in picket lines protesting injustice to Negro students at lunch counters in the South. It is doubtful whether many of my generation, caught in the grips of fraternity snobbishness, would have been willing to demand the right to exercise freedom from discrimination, or would have withdrawn from national organizations when this freedom was not given.
THE most striking changes in the mores of the young lie in the area of sex relations. The older generation are deeply concerned about these because they seem to threaten the basis of our society. They challenge our fixed standards of morality and establish new marriage patterns.
Perhaps we have not sufficiently understood the origins of these changed modes of behavior. World War II at its close brought not peace of mind but increased agitation and insecurity. With the rapid post-war acceleration of our industrial output, improved standards of living made possible more automobiles, more alcohol, and more television sets for millions of families. The swift development of suburban life resulted in new communities, populated by people who had made money fast and who did not know how to use it responsibly. The continuation of the draft and the fearful impact of the Korean War brought to all young Americans an acute sense of insecurity about the future.
From this background of increasing materialism and underlying fear, it was inevitable that drastic changes should emerge in the behavior of the rising generation. The parents who had grown up between 1910 and 1940 did little to discipline or aid their children. Their philosophy of parenthood has often been characterized by extreme permissiveness, induced by their reactions to their own strict upbringing and by current teachings of child psychology. The schools throughout the country have been of very little help, because in the last twenty-five years they have emphasized individual growth and development rather than discipline of the student in accordance with academic requirements and standards.
Who could blame a mother who, in the early fifties, saw eligible young men being snatched away by the draft and who encouraged her high school daughter to collect and hang on to a young man her own age or a little older? Who could blame the young people themselves? In many cases they were brought up in families where they were given no fine parental example and no teaching about moral or religious standards of personal behavior. Encouraged in both high school communities and in college by the ubiquitousness of alcohol, plenty of ready money, and the availability of motels, a number of young people inevitably went the limit and then decided that the simplest way out of their problems was to marry as soon as possible.
In our concern about this group, we often forget the many normal healthy young people who marry young for quite different reasons. Life has matured them early, and the world situation presses heavily upon them. The increase in college education for women has resulted in a new partnership between undergraduates, based on common intellectual interests. They have many more opportunities than we had to find a congenial mate while they are still students. And so they marry immediately after graduation, or sometimes before, setting up households and even having children before they finish their education.
What attitude can we take toward these changes that will be reasonable and helpful? I cannot be sorry that young people are taking life into their own hands and living it to the full. One may wish with Margaret Mead that they could have their college years free for study, discussion, and reading; that they would not so early, in such large numbers, assume the burdens of establishing homes and families. Especially for husbands and wives who are training for professions, exceptional hardships are clearly in the offing. But there is ample proof that married undergraduates do not allow their work to suffer because of their additional responsibilities. In 1939 at Barnard there were two married girls in the graduating class; last year there were 51 in a class of 305. A study of the married girls among the honors students, the fellowship recipients, and the Phi Beta Kappas would silence any skeptics who feel that marriage has adverse effects on academic achievement.
Those of us who know many young married college graduates are even more impressed by them than by the married undergraduates. Somehow, with small children, no domestic help, and very little money, these young couples manage supremely well. Even when one or both are still in graduate or professional school, they run their homes and meet their tuition fees on the funds their parents have given them to pay for their education. Or if they cannot count on parental allowances, they solve their financial problems by working part time. The wives often manage in an afternoon or two to continue with their studies or their professions. They are gay, vigorous, and resourceful; their cultural interests put their elders to shame, as anyone can testify who visits a classical record shop, goes to an exhibit of paintings, or attends an off-Broadway show. They read Camus, Berthold Brecht, and Kirkegaard; they exhaust the editions of contemporary poets. At the same time, their children are relaxed, friendly, healthy, and better disciplined than were our families. Their homes — and they themselves — are comfortable and attractive.
May we say, then, that, after all, the younger generation are building a new kind of marriage and a new morality? Even though we may not approve of many of their customs and patterns of behavior, we must recognize that they are more realistic, more honest, and actually more courageous than we were. Their sex ethics are founded on knowledge instead of ignorance; they are honest rather than hypocritical. Moreover, I know many individuals who have the highest possible personal standards, even though they may tolerate in their fellows deviations from these standards.
Many people who read current literature, especially books written by the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men in England, are convinced that there is no interest among young people in a religious approach to life. The New York Times, in its review of Jack Kerouac’s last book, quotes the author’s autobiographical essay: “I Don’t Know. I Don’t Care. And It Doesn’t Make Any Difference.” Mr. Kerouac’s own books deny this statement, however, in the restless search ol his characters for something different, something more satisfying. They may not know, but they do care, and it does make a difference. And the most famous writer of the fifties, Camus, after facing all the weaknesses of human nature, came through with a deep conviction of the moral nature of man’s struggle to realize himself.
So the undergraduate’s new approach to religion is founded on disillusionment, on a realization of man’s weakness and conflict, but on a determination to find his own solution of his relation to destiny and to God. Each student will do this in his own way; and I can only say that his problem is both more difficult and easier than ours was. We were walking along the edge of a chasm without knowing it was there. Today the young stand at the bottom, with no way to go but up. Instead of ignoring the instincts that can make for evil and disaster, they are willing to face them; but as Erich Fromm points out in his book Man for Himself, they know that the other-seeking, loving, idealistic part of them is equally real and cannot be denied. They have lived all their lives surrounded by the tragedies of human weakness and greed, but they are not afraid. They insist on meeting life on its own terms, and they expect no utopias and only such happiness as they can create within their own personal lives. They cannot tolerate injustice; and they can be quickly roused to indignation against those who profess one thing and do another.
Many of them have a strong religious faith, but they have little sympathy with narrow denominationalism. They are attracted by the mysticism of the East, and while some have found comfort and peace in ritual, they tend to discount the importance of dogma. Even those who are devout Christians or Jews are often unwilling to accept the assumption that their religion contains an exclusive revelation of man’s relation to God. Most of all, belief must relate to the realities of life as they know it.
We must indeed feel humble in the face of what we have done to make the world impossible for the young. We may also be astonished by their ability to find their own way to build happy lives for themselves and for the world of which they soon will be the leaders.