My Student Wear a Mask

VALBORG ANDERSON, who was born in a small Swedish community in Colton, Oregon, received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Oregon and then went on to Brown University for her Ph.D. Now, in addition to her teaching of English at Brooklyn College, she is working on a critical book about the poet Wordsworth.


IT is a college composition course, and there’s the rub. In a literature course the student’s personality is neither issue nor battleground, and so there is no need for the mask that this particular class assumes when I unwittingly provoke it.

The mask appears suddenly on the faces of these students like a tribal response, and as I watch it flickering down, I realize that I have been seeing it for a long time, but never so markedly as now. Why it should emerge so clearly in this class is one of the mysteries and charms of teaching, but here it is: this detachment which is not withdrawal, this appraisal of the world which is critical but not hostile, this silence which is not exactly passive and distinctly not “Beat,”this face biding its own time.

These students enjoy being told that they wear a mask, and they have their own way of accounting for it. They say that they adopted it in high school, when they learned that it was unpopular to be bright. To get ahead in the competitive atmosphere now prevalent in the schools, one has, they say, to work under cover. Although I think that this argument by competition is valid up to a point, I cannot help noticing that it is a favorite one of the older generation; obviously the youngsters do not have to search their own hearts for it. Also, I wonder whether it does not explain other things — for instance, their shameless talk about cheating. If they are not willing to take information, they are, they insist, willing to give it. They say they have to if they want to be liked. Apparently, among the young, information belongs to the tribe, like the food the hunter brings in, and the man who wants a great deal has to pay wergild, a compensation for killing off his brothers.

The students’ explanation of the mask also accounts for their way of pretending that they never study. I suppose that bright students have always, when the occasion called for it, played down the drudgery leading to success, but why does the occasion now always call for it? One day in the English counseling office, I was trying to pacify a girl who was upset over what, she called her “stupidity.” She had to study, whereas no one else ever did. When I was unable to persuade her that her grades indicated ability, another Student broke in to ask her why she was so gullible as to believe that others never studied. Evidently she had taken the mask at its face value.

In the end I am not really satisfied by my students’ explanation. I do not think that they can possibly understand their own unconscious processes so readily. Besides, this theory takes account only of the pressure their own generation puts on them, when surely we must look to the older generation for the real clue. We must ask ourselves what we are doing to make our adolescents suspicious enough and strong enough to put this mask between us, especially when we are working so hard to make them trust us.

And what are we doing? YVe are giving our young people a set of values quite different from our own. No matter how advanced we are, our characters are directed by more or less Victorian morality. Theirs are not. They are the first generation to be brought up on psychological principles as such — for instance, on the revolutionary assumption that guilt is as much a psychological burden as a moral obligation and that in the unconscious all people’s motives are fairly black. So they can say that they lie, they are cowards, without regret; that they are brave only by accident. If they are not interested in politics, they feel no special democratic twinge. When we react to their damaging admissions as our training dictates, they grow evasive. And, perhaps, for good reason. Aren’t our young people, in truth, much nicer than the picture they give of themselves on the typical questionnaire? Don’t they perhaps accuse themselves just to meet the popular demand for scientific clarity and certainty about human nature? Are they evading the older generation, who raise complex questions to which they themselves provide simple, multiple-choice answers?

This generation has had more freedom than any other. It has been allowed to enjoy itself frankly. It has been encouraged to explore the implications, not to say the realities, of sex; to treat school as a second benevolent home; to challenge authority directly. Whether or not we approve of all the freedom our youngsters get, we allow it, apparently in the hope of releasing new power thereby. But we also curiously distrust power of any kind, good or bad, personal or otherwise. We curb the legitimate power of the teacher and the police. We call the intellectual an egghead to banish his power to the barnyard. We cloak the ideal in sentimentality. We wear all sorts ol disguises, often comic in the extreme, over our own drives for power. Naturally our students learn to hide from us, but what are they hiding? One day I asked a girl who was sharply criticizing the debilitating effects of American society whether she herself felt as weak as her criticism would imply. The spontaneous reply was, “I feel as if I could do anything. I feel so powerful.”

Though it is certainly ironic that it should be so in a great democracy, we are also carefully and systematically encouraging our youngsters to distrust their own judgment. Even as college professors — or especially as such — we look with religious fervor for authority outside the self. We yield the creating and constructing powers of the mind to mechanical processes almost automatically. We seem to believe that there is a thought process external to all selves in which we can participate if we discipline ourselves properly, as if objectivity could be achieved by the will to annihilate the self. In so sacrificing our personal authority, we deteriorate in our human relationships as well as in our judgments. Witness the vicious attacks that distinguished doctors of philosophy make upon each other in faculty meetings or at the lunch table. Witness the medical doctor’s assault on the judgment of the patient. Witness many a scientist’s inability to recognize the role his own mind plays in his investigations.

In college English departments, the prejudice against individual judgment has had the most curious fruits of all. Though we are teaching literature, with its deeply personal origins, many of us shockingly distrust creative activity. Instead of encouraging our students to develop their own judgments and feelings, we send them to the authorities to learn how to think and feel. Indeed, we often go there ourselves for the same purpose. If our students have any reactions richly their own, they naturally hide them. What else can they do until we learn that the published judgments of scholars are only the judgments of human beings like us? If we are to know a work of art for ourselves, we cannot substitute anyone else’s perceptions for our own. All we can do for our students is to teach them to test their perceptions in the light and clarity of ours, and then teach them where to go to test theirs and ours further.

This confusion about the role of individual judgment reaches into every nook and cranny of the teaching of composition. Our students, like many of our scholars, alas, write as if they were not autonomous beings but machines for turning out standard opinions. That is why they write so badly. No one can write intelligibly unless he lets his own mind do the writing. Good writing is as personal as true objectivity; it is dependent on the balance of forces within the individual thinking mind.

All this has helped to develop the mask the new generation wears. Notice how often a student’s diction and grammar, not to say his spelling and handwriting, mask his thinking. The possibilities of “maskery” in his English training are marvelous to behold. But the problem of writing is much larger than grammar or mechanics. It is the problem of the personality behind the mask, which can be reached only if we give the dignity and separateness that it is designed to protect a real chance to function.

NO DOUBT, all of us wear a mask. Probably the difference between this generation and ours is only a matter of degree, but it is significant. We are much more self-conscious than our parents were, and our children have to bear the burden of this awareness. The pressures our Victorian parents exerted on us were comparatively clear-cut. There was hypocrisy, but not this deviousness. We did not have to face a concerted assault from radio, movies, television, and newspapers. This generation has had a longer period of adolescence than we had. During this painful and exciting time, the mask has provided a good place to hide.

The mask, I think, does not mean illness. It may even mean health. I wonder whether the delinquent does not behave as he does just because he has no mask. If you have no armor to wear against the ruthless psychologizing of the age: if you have no personal self to bring your public self back to, no refuge when adults shame you for the very things on which their own records are so shaky; if you have no personal defenses against their exploitation ot violence in the public press and elsewhere, or against the threats of sexual freedom they have given you without meaning it, you will probably go berserk. You will join a gang that will give you a code to live by. Bad substitute though it will be for your own defenses, it will be something. The mask works like a vaccine. It protects you from the very vulnerability that generates it.

One reason I am not disturbed by the mask is that I see talent growing behind it. The students of this generation are surprisingly tough-minded. They have that ability to face unpleasant facts that Orwell says the creative personality must have. And when you can force them to use their own voices, you find that they are theirs, not yours.

The voice of one freshman I have taught recently is, I think, a true voice of his generation. Writing on delinquency, this young man insists that the good youngsters are in their own way responsible for the terror in the neighborhood. His own passivity in boyhood he remembers as disgusting and shameful. Better to be beaten up regularly than to pay the daily assessments that delinquents levy on you. Fight back, he says, on the side of the good, and there will be no more disgraceful koreas where young men cannot stand up at all to torture and brainwashing. Be willing to suffer for the good, and there will be less evil.

In the miserable story of his grandfather’s life and death, another young man expresses the spiritual strength of this generation. Through eighty years of life, his grandfather was humiliated at every turn, then scorned by all for his humiliation. By all, that is, except his grandson. This boy saw him as a man who had survived the Biblical years of famine, who spent twenty-five years tending a bedridden wife without help from sons or daughters, who did not value material things “the way his family did,” whose chief misery came when he finally had to be supported by his reluctant, resentful children. In the old man’s last illness, when his body swelled monstrously, the boy “raged and fumed": “Did his death have to be as miserable as his life?”

While he was sick I cried. When he died I sighed with relief, almost thanks. . . . If I hadn’t loved him as much as I did, I wouldn’t have let death take him from me as easily as it did. No tears, no lamentations.

And when the adults who had derided the old man in life cried at the funeral, the adolescent turned to denounce them openly, only to remember in time what his grandfather had told him: “People do not cry for the dead at a funeral; they cry for the living.”

To be eighteen and to look at an unsympathetic world compassionately — isn’t that rather remarkable? And to be able already to see that rebellion is not escape also seems remarkable to me, especially when you see with another eighteen-yearold’s urbane eyes.

What is the official uniform of the nonconformist? I see, sir, that you are scoffing. Then you must be a conformist. Tell me, then, how do you recognize a nonconformist?

You can’t always recognize him by his clothes, although I will say he invariably chooses to wear something outlandish. No, you spot him by his unkempt appearance, his disheveled hair and his unshaven face. You pick him out by his restless attitude and his cynicism, by the kind of music he listens to, by the way he speaks, and by the places he frequents. Stubborn, rebellious, belligerent. Have I got it all? Check.

This young man thinks it a waste of time to go to hear the Beatniks. “They’re just a bunch of nonconforms who don’t know where they’re going.”But conformity does not delude him either. One must “voluntarily” refuse to associate himself with either “monstrous fraternity in which everyone has the same face.”What a relief to see the will raise its lovely face again!

This kind of writing has to be hunted down. Much that the teacher gets is horrendous jargon. It is as if the taps were bursting open to spit out the meaningless mouthings of the advertised, politicalized, depersonalized world these youngsters have known. They love only the big word they do not understand. Challenged to cherish the plain English word, they put on a real glaze. And why not? Watch their painful surprise when they finally understand that you really do want them to write naturally and simply, to express their own opinions, not society’s debased versions of such matters as the high ideals of democracy.

Now that I have begun to recognize this surprise, I see it every day. When I asked an advancecl student in a class in modern poetry whether he liked a particular poem by Yeats, he replied, “Do you want my personal opinion of this poem?” And another student asked in dismay, “Do you mean you want us to derive a definition of Victorianism from these three novels? How do we know what Victorianism is? Don’t you know no one can generalize about only three novels?" The idea that generalizations from whatever source are generalizations made by a human mind, not facts — that there are such things as modest generalizations — undermines their whole intellectual structure. I will never forget the hurt wrath of a young lady when I tried to assure her that anyone who spoke as well as she did could write understandably. “What do you mean? No one in this school has ever been interested in my opinions!”

Though I think we deserve the runaround the students are giving us, I also think they are giving it to us for reasons strictly their own. They will go to almost any lengths to avoid having to inquire into their own natures. They appear to respond generously to all kinds of scientific investigation, yet they will not put their real feelings down anywhere if they can help it. And, given their own hidden needs, they are probably right. If they are able to separate themselves from us, it is just possible that they will enter adulthood without our particular weaknesses and crippling inhibitions. One sure thing is that these youngsters are not the exhibitionists of the twenties. They wear the clothes of that era like a charming disguise. And, just as sure, they are not the rebels people feared in the thirties and forties. They want order far too much. The bravery they put on against the threatening sky, knowing full well that every ride in that jet plane may be their last, is deeply touching.

For me, the nicest thing about our young people is that when they bring me a poem or paper not written for an assignment, I do not have to retire behind my own mask. So much of what I see is interesting, I cannot help feeling that the youngsters’ mask is doing its job. It is giving them a new stance — the privacy in which to do their own work.