The War Against the Young
The war is a real one, though many of the elders who wage it will not acknowledge it. Campus after campus blows. The "hot minority" of the disenchanted grows, in number and in anger. In this article, the distinguished author (A World Elsewhere), editor (Partisan Review) and professor of English (Rutgers) Richard Poirier warns that by repressing the rebellion of youth instead of understanding, we are in danger of losing the best of our natural resources—"youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope."
The social systems which organize and rationalize contemporary life have always been ingeniously armed for the day when youth would rebel against the essentially pastoral status assigned to it. Despite pamperings until recently unimaginable, despite economic briberies and various psychological coercions, the rebellion has broken out. Predictably, the response to it is a gradual escalation involving a more naked use of the tactics that were supposed to prevent, but which also helped to provoke, the crisis in the first place: patronizations, put-downs, and tongue-lashings, along with offers of a place in the governing system if only the system is left intact and promises that in any case the future itself holds the solution to whatever now seems to be the trouble. If this technique sounds familiar in its mixture of brutality and pacification, in its combination of aggression and absorption, noted by Edgar Freidenberg in his brilliant analysis of the adult treatment of the adolescent minority, if it sounds vaguely like methods used in other and related domestic and foreign conflicts, then the point is obvious: our society is unfortunately structured, in the prevalent forms of its language and thinking, in ways designed to suppress some of the most vital elements now struggling into consciousness and toward some awareness of their frustrated powers.
This struggle is essentially a cultural one, regardless of the efforts by older people to make political use of it or to place it, unflatteringly, within the terms of traditional politics, particularly cold-war politics. The intellectual weapons used in the war against youth are from the same arsenal—and the young know this—from which war is being waged against other revolutionary movements, against Vietnam, against any effective justice, as distinguished from legislative melodrama, in matters of race and poverty. These weapons, as I’ve suggested, are by no means crude. They scarcely look at times like weapons at all, and many of the people most adroit in handling them, writers and teachers as well as politicians, aren’t even aware that they are directing against youth arguments of a kind used also to rationalize other policies which they consider senseless and immoral. Aside from the political necessities of candidates, why is it that people who can be tough-mindedly idealistic in opposition to our actions in Vietnam or to our treatment of the powerless, talk about youth and think about the rebellion of youth in a manner implicit in the mentality that produces and excuses these other barbarities? The reason, I think, is that most people don’t want to face the possibility that each of these troubles grows from the same root and can be traced back to the same murky recesses within each of us and within the social organisms to which we have lent ourselves. They prefer isolated and relatively visible sources for such difficulties, along with the illusion that each of them is susceptible to accredited forms of political or economic cleansing. By contrast, it is the conviction of the most militant young people, and of some older ones, that any solutions will require a radical change in the historical, philosophical, and psychological assumptions that are the foundations of any political or economic system. Some kind of cultural revolution is therefore the necessary prelude even to our capacity to think intelligently about political reformation.
Oddly enough, the young are proved right, in this supposition at least, by the nature of the attacks made against them. I don’t mean attacks from the likes of Reagan and Wallace, but those coming from becalmed and sensible men, whose moderation is of a piece with their desire to increase the efficiency of the present system. At work in these attacks are the same tendencies of thought and language that shape the moderate, rationalizing analyses of the other nightmares I’ve mentioned. They help us to sleep through them during the night and during most of the day.
Maybe the most prevalent of these tendencies is the insistence on a language that is intellectually “cool,“ a language aloof from militant or revolutionary vocabularies, which in their exclusion sound excessive, exaggerated, and unserviceable. This cool language is not at all dull or plodding. On the contrary, it’s full of social flair; it swings with big words, slang words, naughty words, leaping nimbly from the “way out” to the “way in”—it really holds the world together, hips and squares alike. The best working example is the style of Time magazine, and it wasn’t surprising in a recent issue to find a piece full of compliments to what were titularly called “Anti-Revolutionaries.“ With the suave observation that writers like these “who prefer rationality to revolution are by no means conservative,” they honored three distinguished commentators on youth and other scenes. One of the three, Benjamin DeMott, a professor of English at Amherst, diversely active as a novelist, critic, and educational innovator, had earlier written an essay in the Sunday New York Times Magazine on the style of what he called the “spirit of over-kill” among some of his fellow writers, especially those of the revolutionary fringe like Paul Goodman, Andrew Kopkind, and Susan Sontag.
According to DeMott, the verbal violence of this decade “was” (and I’ll get to the significance of this past tense in a moment) “pressed not at new ‘enemies’ but at old ones already in tatters.“ Just at a glance one had to wonder why “enemies,“ new or old, were assigned the unreality of quotation marks. Has the semblance of negotiations made the war in Vietnam disappear as an “enemy”? Does he mean racial injustice? the horrors of urban life? the smothering effects of educational institutions of which he is himself one of the most active critics? I’m afraid these enemies aren’t so easily dispelled. The degree to which they press against DeMott’s own “cool” dismissal of them is in fact made evident, with engaging innocence, in the very form of his essay. In order to find a requisite dispassion for his own style, as against what he mistakenly takes for the dominant style of this decade, he must project himself to the end of the century and then look back at us. Like other critics of our violence, he is himself already visiting the famous year 2000, programming for which, as we are cautioned by a number of distinguished economists, sociologists, and technicians, will only be disrupted by people who fail to remain politely soft-spoken amid the accumulating squalor, blood, and suffering of their lives.
This peculiar form of address, by which we are asked to hear our present as if it were our past, suggests yet another and more subtle method of repression—the futuristic—now especially popular in the social sciences. A notably unembarrassed practitioner, and yet another writer commended by the article in Time magazine, is Zbigniew Brzezinski, director of the Research Institute on Communist Affairs at Columbia, recently a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, and now head of Hubert Humphrey’s “task force” on foreign affairs. Also concerned because revolutionary loudmouths and their young adherents are incited by the past rather than the future—keep in mind that there is no present, in case you thought it was hurting someone— Brzezinski has published two futuristic position papers in the New Republic: “The American Transition,“ and more recently, “Revolution and Counterrevolution (But Not Necessarily About Columbia!).“ Happily bounding over invisible rainbows, Brzezinski lets us know that, like it or not, we are already becoming a “technetronic society,“ and any old-fashioned doctrinal or ideological habits—as if ideology wouldn’t be inherent in his imagined social systems—will get us into real, permanent troubles instead of temporary ones. We’ll fail to adapt, that is, to “the requirements of the metamorphic age,“ and thus miss the chance of creating a “meritocratic democracy” in which “a community of organization-oriented, application-minded intellectuals [can relate] itself more effectively to the political system than their predecessors.“ We need only stay calm, and admittedly such language is not designed to excite us, since “improved governmental performance, and its increased sensitivity to social needs is being stimulated by the growing involvement in national affairs of what Kenneth Boulding has called the Educational and Scientific Establishment (EASE).”
Deifications have of course always been announced by capitalization. As in religion, so in politics: an “excessive” concern for the present is a sure way of impairing your future. If, in the one case, you might as well surrender your will to God, in the other you might as well surrender it to EASE, or, getting back to DeMott patiently waiting there at the turn of the century, to “the architects of the Great Disengagement,“ with “their determination to negotiate the defusing of The Words as well as of The Bombs.“ But I’m afraid it’s merely symptomatic of how bad things are now that many of those who want the young and the rebellious to be more quiet follow the advice of Hubert Humphrey: they speak to the young not about the past, not even about the present, but about some future, which, as prognosticators, they’re already privileged to know. They are There; the revolutionists are living in the Past. And who is here and now, living, suffering, and impassioned in the present? Apparently no one, except maybe a few of what Brzezinski likes to call the “historical irrelevants.”
If the young are inarticulate, if, when they do try to expound their views, they sound foolish, are these, and other examples of adult thinking and writing which I’ll get to presently, somehow evidences of superior civilization, something to be emulated, the emanations of a system worth saving from revolution? Such arguments and such uses of language—almost wholly abstracted from the stuff of daily life as it is lived in this year, these months, this week—do not define but rather exemplify the cultural and linguistic crisis to which the young are responding with silence even more than with other demonstrations of their nearly helpless discontent. “Power, or the shadow cast by power, always ends in creating an axiological writing,“ as the French critic Roland Barth puts it, “in which the distance which usually separates fact from value disappears within the space of a word.“ To prefer “rationality” to “revolution” is good Time magazine language. It can’t be faulted except by those who feel, as I do, that a revolution is probably necessary if rationality is to be restored to a society that thinks it has been operating rationally. If the young are “revolutionary,“ and if this is the reverse of “rational,” what, then, is the nature of the rationality they’re attacking? Quite aside from science fiction passing for history in the writings we’ve just looked at, are the practices of the United States government with regard to most issues of race, poverty, the war, the gun laws, or even the postal service rational? Is it rational to vote an increase of money for Vietnam, and on the same hot day in July, cut appropriations for the summer employment of young Negroes and Puerto Ricans, thus helping to encourage a bloody summer at home while assuring one abroad?
These are all, as Brzezinski would point out, complex issues, and according to him, they will not be solved by “historical irrelevants,“ by those who, with revolutionary fervor, are yearning, as he would have it, for the simplicities of the past and who therefore “will have no role to play in the new technetronic society.“ But what has decided, since I know no people who have, that we want his “technetronic society,“ that it is desirable or inevitable? Who decides that it is necessary or even good for certain issues to be construed as complex and therefore susceptible only to the diagnosticians who would lead such a society? Why have certain issues become complex and who is served by this complexity? Why is the life we already lead, mysterious and frightening as it is, to be made even more so by the ridiculous shapes conjured up in Brzezinski’s jaw-breaking terminologies? Some issues are not simple, which does not mean that some others are not unnecessarily complex. It is clear to everyone that Vietnam is “complex.“ But it is equally clear that it need not, for us, have become complex; that it might not even have existed as an issue, except for those members of EASE who helped justify our continued presence there. Maybe the secret is that it is really “easy” to be complex.
The funniest and in a way the most innocent example of this kind of no-thinking passing in sound and cadence for responsible, grown-up good sense is offered by George Kennan. The third figure heralded for his rationality in the Time article, Kennan is a renowned historian, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, and the author of yet another containment policy, this one for youth. Kennan’s specialty is what might be called “the argument from experience,“ easily slipping into “the argument from original sin.“ “The decisive seat of evil in this world,” he tells us in Democracy and the Student Left, a just-published debate between him and nearly forty students and teachers, “is not in social and political institutions, and not even, as a rule, in the ill-will or iniquities of statesmen, but simply in the weakness and imperfection of the human soul itself.” No one can deny a proposition so general, but surely only someone who likes for other reasons to plead the inescapable complexity of issues could propose such an idea to people wondering how the hell we got into Vietnam or why millions of poor in a country so rich must go hungry every day.
Kennan has, of course, had direct experience with other revolutions and with other people who have ignored the imperfections of the human soul simply by denying its existence. No wonder it often sounds, then, as if the militant young are merely his chance at last to give a proper dressing-down to the kind of fellows who brought on the Russian Revolution, his historical analogies being to that extent, at least, more complimentary to the young than Brzezinski’s evocation of Luddites and Chartists. “I have heard it freely confessed by members of the revolutionary student generation of Tsarist Russia,“ Kennan rather huffily reports, “that, proud as they were of the revolutionary exploits of their youth, they never really learned anything in their university years; they were too busy with politics.“ Earlier, from Woodrow Wilson at his prissiest, he describes an ideal “at the very center of our modern institutions of higher learning”: it is a “free place,“ in Wilson’s words, “itself a little world; but not perplexed, living with a singleness of aim not known without; the home of sagacious men.”
Was it such sagacious men, one must ask, since it surely was not the rampaging students, who assumed that this ideal place should also house ROTC units, defense projects, recruiters from Dow Chemical, and agents of the CIA? An ideal institution freed of those perplexities—which evidently do not bother Mr. Kennan—is precisely what the students have been agitating for. It is not possible to think about learning now without being, as he pejoratively puts it, “busy with politics.“ The university officials and the government have seen to that. But again, Kennan probably doesn’t regard ROTC as a political presence on campus, and students are “busy with politics” not in the precious hours wasted on drill and military science, but only while agitating against these activities, which are mostly useless even from a military point of view. Out of this mess of verbal and moral assumptions, the finest and stiffest blossom is the phrase “freely confessed”: imagine having the gall to tell someone outright that as a student you hadn’t even done your assignments while trying to overthrow a corrupt and despotic government. Doubtless that government also preferred its universities “not perplexed” by anything related to the conduct of public affairs.
Compared with the futuristic modes of Brzezinski and DeMott, Kennan’s mode of argument is at least honest about seeing the present only as if it were the past. In its rather ancient charm it isn’t nearly so dangerously effective as still other less explicitly theological, less passionate, more academically systematized methods now in vogue for abridging youthful radicalism or transcendentalism. Consider for example what might be called the tight-contextual method. This is particularly useful in putting assassinations in their place, or rather in no-place (“it was not Dallas that curled a finger round that trigger and pulled it; it was a sad and sick individual,” one informant irrefutably told me), and in explaining why we cannot withdraw from Vietnam. That country gets reduced, in this form of argument, to some thousands of vaguely identified friends whom we cannot desert, even though their worth is even more difficult to locate than is their presence during combat operations. Of course this kind of analysis works wonders on anything as worldwide and variously motivated as student or youth protest. Unanswerably the students at Columbia are not the students in Paris or Czechoslovakia or even Berkeley. Like the leaders in any generation, the rebellious students are only a small minority of the young, a minority even of the student bodies they belong to. There are local, very special reasons not only for the motivations of each group but for each of the different acts of each group. What is astonishing, however, is that they all do act, that they are all acting now, that the youth of the world almost on signal have found local causes—economic, social, political, academic ones—to fit an apparently general need to rebel. So universal and simultaneous a response to scarcely new causes reveals in the young an imaginative largeness about the interconnection of issues, an awareness of their wider context, of a world in which what in former decades would have been a local war is now symptomatic, as is poverty and the quality of life in our cities, of where the dominant forms of thinking have taken us. Again, it can be said that the young are in effect rebelling against precisely the kinds of analysis that are inadequate to explain what the young are up to. More terrifying than the disorder in the streets is the disorder in our heads; the rebellion of youth, far from being a cause of disorder, is rather a reaction, a rebellion against the disorder we call order, against our failure to make sense of the way we live now and have lived since 1945.
Yet another form of restrictive or deflationary analysis—and appropriately the last I’ll consider—is a special favorite of literary critics and historians as well as politicians: the anti-apocalyptic. Implicit in some of the methods we’ve already looked at, this one dampens revolutionary enthusiasms with the information that history has recorded such efforts before and also recorded their failure—the Abolitionists, the young Bolsheviks, the Luddites. All claims to uniqueness are either tarnished by precedent or doomed to meaninglessness. We’ve been through it all, and are now doing the best we can, given—and here we’re back at the borders of Original Sin—our imperfect state of being. In the treatment of militant youth, this type of argument is especially anxious to expose any elitist or fascist tinge in the young, with their stress on a chimerical “participatory democracy” or their infantile assumption that the worst must be allowed to happen—let us say the election of George Wallace—if ever the inherent horrors of the “System,” and thus the necessities of revolution, are to become apparent to everyone. Some people do talk this way; some people always have. But only a minority of the articulate and protesting young lend themselves to anything so politically programmatic. Such arguments are wholly peripheral to the emergence of youth as a truly unique historical force for which there are no precedents. Youth is an essentially nonpolitical force, a cultural force, that signals, while it can’t by itself initiate, the probable beginnings of a new millennium, though hardly the one described in the Book of Revelations. If only because of its continuously fluid, continuously disappearing and emerging, membership, it is incapable of organizing itself into shapes suitable to the political alliances that can be made by other, more stable minority groups like the blacks. It has no history; it may never have one, but it is that shared experience of all races which may come finally to dominate our imagination of what we are.
What is happening to the youth of the world deserves the freest imagination, the freest attention that older people are capable of giving. It requires an enormously strenuous, and for most people, probably impossible, intellectual effort. Working within the verbal and conceptual frames—a sadly appropriate word—against which the rebellion of youth is in large part directed, we must try to invent quite different ways of seeing, imagining, and describing. So complicated is the task linguistically that it is possible to fail merely because of the vocabulary with which, from the best intentions, we decide to try. It is perhaps already irrelevant, for example, to discuss the so-called student revolt as if it were an expression of “youth.“ The revolt might more properly be taken as a repudiation by the young of what adults call “youth.“ It may be an attempt to cast aside the strangely exploitative and at once cloying, the protective and impotizing concept of “youth” which society foists on people who often want to consider themselves adults. Is it youth or is it the economic and sexual design of adult society that is being served by what Erik Erikson calls the “moratorium,“ the period when people under twenty-one are “allowed” to discover their identities without at the same time having to assume adult responsibilities? Quite painfully, the young have suddenly made us aware that the world we have been seeing isn’t necessarily the world at all. Not only that France wasn’t France, but that even the young weren’t necessarily that thing we call “young.” It is no longer a matter of choice therefore: we must learn to know the world differently, including the young, or we may not know it until it explodes, thus showing forth its true nature, to follow the logic of Marx, only in the act and at the moment of breakdown.
Before asking questions about the propriety and programs of young militants who occupy buildiligs, burn cars, and fight the police, let’s first ask what kind of world surrounds these acts. Let’s not conceive of the world as a place accidentally controlled by certain people whose wickedness or stupidity has been made evident by disaster, or as thc scene of injustices whose existence was hidden from us. Because to do so implies that we are beguiled rather than responsible even for specific things that we do not know are happening. We’re in danger of becoming like the Germans before the war who afterward turned to their children with dismay, then surprise, then amnesia. Such analogies to our present situation, and even more to an anticipated one, are not exact, but neither are they remote.
The world we now live in cannot get any better merely by changing its managers or improving some of its circumstances. It exists as it does because of the way we think about one another and because of our incapacity, so far at least, to learn to think differently. For those who fought in it and who are now the middle generation and parents of the young, World War II gave absolutely the worst kind of schooling. It trained us to think in extraordinarily simplistic terms about politics and history. One might even say that it made people my age strangely apolitical and ahistorical. We were convinced that evil resided in Nazism and Fascism, and that against these nothing less than total victory was acceptable. The very concept of total victory or unconditional surrender was part of a larger illusion that all wickedness was entrenched in certain places, circumstances, and persons, and very subtly these were differentiated from the people or the nations where they found hospitality. The Morgenthau plan had no chance of success, and not simply because it was economically unfeasible in proposing the creation of an agrarian state between the West and the East. It would have had the even more tactically dangerous effect of blaming a people for a war. Thereby two embarrassing questions would have been raised: either that the Germans were really a separate kind of people, or if not, that they were like us, and must therefore have had some understandable provocation for acting as they did. And what could that provocation have been if not something for which we too had a responsibility? No—better just talk about the eradication of Nazism and warlords.
Like all wars, World War II blinded us to the conditions at home that required our attention, and so did the cold war that followed: for nearly twenty-five years we looked at foreign devils rather than domestic ills. The consequences were even worse in our thinking, however, or rather in our not thinking, about the true sources and locations of our trouble. They are within ourselves and within the mechanisms of our own society. One reason why those in the parental generation cannot understand the rebellion of the young is that our own “rebellion” was managed for us, while for the young now it is instinctive and invented and unprogrammed. Our protest movement was the war itself, the crusade against Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese imperialism. In many ways our youth didn’t matter to the world. I went into the infantry in 1943 at seventeen, fought in Germany, and came out in 1946 imagining that I’d helped cleanse the globe and could therefore proceed to make up for lost personal time at the university, where a grateful government paid my expenses.
If the war absorbed and homogenized the political feelings of the millions like me who are now the parents of people nearly old enough to be drafted for a quite different kind of war, the G.I. Bill of Rights gave us an experience of college and university life different from any before or since. The G.I. Bill was legislation of enormous political and social importance. It allowed the first huge influx into colleges, universities, and later into the academic profession, of people who for financial and social reasons weren’t before recognized as belonging to the group which represents youth as our society likes to imagine it—the students. But, given their backgrounds, which made them poignantly anxious to take advantage of an opportunity they never thought available, much less a right, given their age, service experience, sexual maturity, and often marriage, this influx of a new kind of student had a stabilizing rather than a disrupting effect. We were maybe the first really serious mass of students who ever entered the academy, designed up till then, and still designed, to prolong immaturity until the ridiculous age of twenty-one or later.
If we were serious, it was in a bad sense, I’m afraid: we wanted so much to make it that we didn’t much question the value of what we were doing. I’m not surprised that so few people my age are radical even in temperament. My fellow academicians who came through the process I’ve described have fitted all too nicely into the Anglophilic gentility of most areas of academic life, into the death-dealing social manners promoted by people who before the war could afford the long haul of graduate as well as undergraduate education. For how many families did the fact that “my boy” is a professor, especially a professor in English, mean the final completion of citizenship papers? Because that’s what most of the proliferation of exams, graduate or otherwise, really add up to. Much more than the reputed and exaggerated effect of television and other media in creating a self-conscious community of the young (effects shared, after all, by people in their thirties and early forties), it is the peculiar nature of World War II and of subsequent schooling experience which separates the older from the younger but still contiguous groups.
In thinking about the so-called generation gap, then, I suggest that people my age think not so much about the strangeness of the young but about their own strangeness. Why is it “they” rather than “we” who are unique? By what astonishing arrogance do people my age propose to themselves the program described recently in the New York Times Sunday Book Review by a critic who wrote that during the summer he would support McCarthy and that “beyond that, full-time opposition to radical or reactionary excesses in the arts and criticism strikes me as proper and sufficient activity for a critic. And political enough, too, in its ultimate implications.“ The ultimate implications are dead center. Dead because what can anyone mean now by an “excess,” and from where does one measure it unless, like the person in question, he entertains, as do most of my contemporaries, the paranoiac illusion that he has emerged a representative of True Nature?
Only when the adult world begins to think of itself as strange, as having a shape that is not entirely necessary, much less lovely, only when it begins to see that the world, as it has now been made visible to us in forms and institutions, isn’t all there, maybe less than half of it—only then can we begin to meet the legitimate anguish of the young with something better than the cliché that they have no program. Revolutionaries seldom do. One can be sick and want health, jailed and want freedom, inwardly dying and want a second birth without a program. For what the radical youth want to do is to expose the mere contingency of facts which have been considered essential. That is a marvelous thing to do, the necessary prelude to our being able, any of us, to think of a program which is more than merely the patching up of social systems that were never adequate to the people they were meant to serve.
Liberal reformers, no matter how tough, won’t effect and might even forestall the necessary changes. In our universities, for example, there is no point in removing symptoms and leaving the germs. It is true, as the young have let us know with an energy that isn’t always convenient even to sympathizers like myself, that our universities are too often run by fat cats, that renowned professors are bribed by no or little teaching, that a disproportionate amount of teaching is done by half-educated, miserably underpaid, and distracted graduate assistants, that, as a consequence of this imbalance, research of the most exciting kind has very little immediate bearing on curriculum, which remains much as it has for the past fifty years, and that, as Martin Duberman eloquently showed in a recent issue of Daedalus, authoritarianism in curriculum and in teaching, not to be confused with being an authority in a subject, is so much a part of our educational system that university students arrive already crippled even for the freedom one is prepared to give them. These conditions exist in a pattern of idiotic requirements and childish, corrupting emoluments not simply because our universities are mismanaged. The mismanagement has itself a prior cause which is to be found in the way most people think about scholarship and its relation to teaching—a question which is a kind of metaphor for the larger one of the relations between the generations: what conditions permit the most profitable engagements between an older mind that is trained and knowledgeable and a younger one anxious to discover itself but preconditioned by quite different cultural circumstances?
These circumstances have, of course, always differed between one generation and another, but never so radically as now. Never before have so many revered subjects, like literature itself, seemed obsolete in any strict compartmental form; never before have the divisions between such subjects as anthropology, sociology, and languages seemed more arbitrary and harmful to intelligent inquiry; and seldom in the history of modern civilization has there been a greater need felt by everyone for a new key to our mythologies, a key that we nervously feel is about to be found. For if we are at a moment of terror we are also at a moment of great expectation and wonder, for which the young have a special appetite. To meet this challenge, the universities need to dismantle their entire academic structure, their systems of courses and requirements, their notion of what constitutes the proper fields and subjects of academic inquiry.
Most people who teach have in their heads some ideal university, and mine would be governed by a single rule: there is nothing that does not need to be studied in class, including, of course, the oddity of studying in a class. Everything and everybody, the more randomly selected the better, has to be subjected to questions, especially dumb questions, and to the elicitation of answers. The point is that nothing must be taken for other than “strange,” nothing must be left alone. Study the morning paper, study the teacher, study the listless slouching of some students—half-dead already at eighteen. But above all, those working in advanced research sponsored at any university would also let capable students study that research and ask questions about it. And if in fact some things cannot be taught, then that in itself should be the subject of inquiry. The hierarchies that might evolve would be determined on a wholly pragmatic basis: for subjects, by the amount of effort and time needed to make something yield up the dimensions of its mystery; for any way of thinking, by the degree to which it raises a student to eye level with the potentialities of a subject, the degree to which it can tune his ears into it. Above all, the university would be a place where curricula are discovered anew perhaps every year or so. The argument that the demands of an existing student body cannot be allowed to determine policy for succeeding ones would mean the reverse of what it now means: not that changes are difficult to effect, but that they would be effected year after year, if necessary, to meet the combined changes of interest in student and faculty. Given the sluggishness of most people, the results of such a policy would not be nearly as chaotic or exciting as one might imagine. Indeed, what would be hoped for is more disruption, and therefore more questioning and answering than one would ever get.
In confronting oppositions from youth as in other matters short of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson is a genius in that his most decent impulses, and he has some, don’t merely serve, aren’t merely synchronized with, but are indistinguishable from his often uncanny political instinct for pacifying any opposition, for castrating any force that threatens to move the system off the center track which carried him to power. While demonstrations at Columbia were making Hubert Humphrey sick “deep inside,” and Nixon was reportedly saying that if there were a second Columbia he wouldn’t have to care whom he had to run against, LBJ was proposing that the vote be given to all people between eighteen and twenty-one. But the terrible price of the political logic he so masterfully handles is at once made evident if we ask what many of the young, and not simply the militant ones, would find to vote for in this election. They would be joining the electorate just when it is at last stagnating from our national satisfaction with the mere manipulation and redistribution of the poisons within us. So ingeniously is the center still in control of the manipulative forces that there will not be a turn to the right within our political system, not one with any more chance of success than Goldwater, at least, and no one within the system represents the left. The danger sign will be abstention, political indifference, a decision not to care very much who wins, not to participate in a process that affords only a negative choice.
When any large number of people demonstrate their indifference to the choices offered them, they tend to invent others that exist outside the going “democratic” system. They tend to gravitate toward some species of the “participatory democracy” for which the elitist young are most severely criticized. It’s fortunate that Johnson’s voting-age proposal can’t be enacted in time for the young people of eighteen to twenty-one to enter a political imbroglio so contemptibly arranged as this one. It could only further convince them of the necessity for some kind of nondemocratic movement to replace the farce of democracy in which they’d have been asked to take part, and it would allow their critics to assign to them some blame for the consequences of the indifference among the older electorate. The indifference grows on the momentum supplied not by the young but by the nature of our public life. The now not uncommon proposition that our problems are no longer manageable within existing political systems, and that we need an Authority empowered to decide what is best for us, cannot be ascribed merely to youth, Herbert Marcuse, Vietnam, race, violence, or any combination of these. The emerging failure of confidence in our way of managing ourselves and our interests in the world is the consequence of a political process now overwhelmed by the realities it has tried to hide, realities that have grown like cancer cells treated by pain-killers.
Instinctively, the militant young are involved less in a political rebellion, where demands for their “program” would be relevant, than in an attack on the foundations of all of our current political programming. The issues they raise and the issues they personify are essentially anthropological, which brings us to the cultural rather than the political importance of the President’s proposal to move the voting age back from twenty-one to eighteen. The importance can be dramatized, with no intention of melodrama, by predicting that within twenty years or so it will be necessary to propose, if not to pass, a voting age of sixteen. Like other mere changes of policy, changes in voting age should not be taken as a sign that we are suddenly to be governed by new or radical modes of thinking. Rather, such reforms signal the accumulated power of forces which our operative modes of thinking have before tried to ignore and which they will now try to make invisible by absorption.
But with the mass of youth—nearly half the population is now under twenty-five—our society is faced with an unprecedented difficulty in the application of this essentially social technique. For when it comes to the young, society is not simply absorbing a group who, like the Irish or labor, duplicate in their social organization each part of the dominant group. To give something like adult or historic identity to a mass that has up to now been relegated to the position of “youth” means a disruptive change in the concept of human identity, of when that identity is achieved, of what it properly should contribute to history. The time scheme that governs our ideas of adolescence, youth, and maturity has changed many times in history since the sixteenth century—Juliet was fourteen, and early in the eighteenth century the age of consent was ten—but it was adjusted to the convenience of an extraordinarily small ruling minority which was in turn submissive to familial regulations. For the first time in history a change of this kind is being made on demand from a powerful mass of young people freed of familial pieties, and never before has a society worked as strenuously as ours, through a mesh of mythologies, to hold these young people back, in an unmercifully prolonged state of adolescence and of what we call “youth.” Especially in the United States, thc representative and most talented young—the students—have for generations been forced not to take themselves seriously as men and women.
So far, the rebellion has accomplished at least one thing: it has succeeded in demoting “collegiate types” (and the sickly reminiscent values that they injected into later life) from glamour to absurdity. The change is not complete, and it never will be. Whole campuses are holdouts, some quite distinguished ones, like Yale and Stanford, where the prep-school ethos remains dominant, while at others the overwhelming number of young clods makes it difficult for the few students who really are alive even to find one another, much less establish an esprit that can irradiate more than a small circle. Still, recent agitations have confirmed some of the advances made by the earlier generation of students under the G.I. Bill and cleared still more room on American campuses for the kind of young person who does want to enter history at eighteen, and who is therefore contemptuous of society’s cute and reassuring idea of the collegiate —with Lucille Ball as ideal House Mother. Such historical self-consciousness on the part of university students has been fairly common in Europe and in England, where, as shown by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams in Journey to the Frontier, students in the thirties could feel that the “journey” to the Spanish Civil War did not follow but rather began at Oxford and Cambridge. But the differences are obvious, and again, relate to class and family: children of the English upper classes were educated to feel historical, and what distinguished them from lower-class boys was that from boyhood their “careers” meant something to the political and historical career of England. Only rarely, and almost exclusively at Harvard, does this phenomenon occur in American universities. Education in American universities has generally been a combination of utilitarian course work and play-acting, “getting ready” to be an adult, even if it meant still getting ready at twenty-two.
The shattering of this pattern has been the work of a complex of forces that include students within the larger power bloc of youth, with its enormous influence on dress and mores, and, perhaps above all, its success in the fields of entertainment. By force of numbers and energy alone, the young have created images which older people are now quite anxious to endow with a sexual-social significance that they before refused to find in the activity of “kids.“ Put another way, youth has ceased to fulfill the “literary” role which American society has been anxious to assign them. They no longer supply us with a pastoral, any more than the “darkies” do, and this is a serious cultural deprivation for which we have yet to discover a replacement.
Every civilization has to invent a pastoral for itself, and ours has been an idea of youth and of adolescence that has become socially and economically unprofitable, demographically unmanageable, and biologically comic. By a pastoral I mean any form of life that has, by common consent, been secured from the realities of time and history. Some form of pastoral is absolutely essential: it helps stabilize the cycles of individual lives and of civilizations. Its function is an idealizing, simplifying one: it secures certain elemental human attributes from the contaminations of time and of historical involvement. But if the logic of pastoral is to protect certain attributes, its ulterior motive is to keep the human embodiment of these attributes in their proper place, servants rather than participants in daily business where real men really face complex reality.
Insofar as America’s imagination of itself can be inferred from literature, from popular entertainment, from fashions, conventions, and educational theory, it can be said that we have used youth as a revenge upon history, as the sacrificial expression of our self-contempt. Youth has been the hero of our civilization, but only so long as it has remained antagonistic to history, only so long as it has remained a literary or mythological metaphor. War, the slaughter of youth at the apparent behest of history, is the ultimate expression of this feeling. The American hatred of history, of what it does to us, gets expressed in a preposterous and crippling idealization of youth as a state as yet untouched by history, except as a killer, and in a corresponding incapacity to understand the demand, now, by the best of the young, to be admitted into it. More hung up on youth than any nation on earth, we are also more determined that youth is not to enter into history without paying the price of that adulteration we call adulthood. To justify what grown-ups have made of our young, virgin, uncontaminated land, it’s as if we are compelled to show that what happened was necessary. Exceptions would prove our human culpability for what is otherwise ascribed to history, and so all that is best in our land must either be kept out of history or tarnished by it. Like our natural wonders, youth will be allowed to exist only on condition that it remain, like some natural preserve, outside the processes that transform everything else into waste.
Surely the destination of our assets needn’t be so bleak, so inexorable, so neurotically determined. It will now be seen whether or not we are to exhaust our youth, whether or not in its vulnerability, its continually evaporating and exposed condition, it can resist being made grist for the mill. Because youth is not a historically grounded pressure group, aware of its history, jealous of its progress, continuous and evolving. It is rather what we, all of us, sometimes are. I have avoided any precise definition of youth because it refers to the rare human condition of exuberance, expectation, impulsiveness, and above all, of freedom from believing that all the so-called “necessities” of life and thought are in fact necessities. This condition exists most usefully, for the nation and the world, in people of a certain age, specifically in those who have attained the physical being that makes them wonderfully anxious to create life, to shape life, to enter into life rather than have it fed into them. It is the people of this age, members of what Freidenberg calls the “hot-blooded minority,“ who are in danger of obliteration as representatives of youth. It is impossible for them to remain youth, in any sense that would profit the rest of society, and also enter into history on the hateful terms now offered them by our political, economic, and technological system. Lyndon Johnson knew instinctively what he was up to when, calling for a vote for people of this age, he remarked that they deserved it because they are “adults in every sense.”
Fine, if that means we now change our concept of adulthood to include an eighteen-year-old Bob Dylan rather than an eighteen-year-old Nixon, some creep valedictorian. But that isn’t what he has in mind. LBJ has not changed his way of thinking about youth, adulthood, or anything else. He has merely responded to this fantastic cultural opportunity the way our leaders respond to any such opportunity for change: they merely make more room in the house with as little inconvenience as possible to the settled inhabitants. All he proposes to do, and this will have some amusing as well as sad consequences, is lift the term youth from those who threatened us with it, and then hold it in reserve for the time, not far off, when it can be quietly left on the narrow shoulders of what we now call adolescents. Some tinkering will be necessary here and there, of course. The Adolescent Clinic at Children’s Hospital in Boston chooses the ages thirteen to nineteen for its patients, but those who’ve seen some of the ten-to-twelve-year-olds who sneak in tell me that if the ranks of adolescence are to be depleted to fill the vacated positions of youth, these in turn will be quickly occupied by Robert Coles’s children of crisis. This will seem a facetious prediction to people who like to think they are reasonable.
So, what I’m saying is that if young people are freeing themselves from a repressive myth of youth only to be absorbed into a repressive myth of adulthood, then youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope, will have been lost to us, and we will have exhausted the best of our natural resources.