THE CONFLICT OF GENERATIONS by Lewis S. Feuer Basic Books, $12.50
In the spring of 1968, through what may have been either a punishment for my past sins or the whimsical hostility of a harsh God, I found myself living in a tackymodern apartment with built-in Muzak across the road from the Red Wheel Diner in Urbana, Illinois. I was teaching a journalism seminar at the University of Illinois, and since (with a very lew happy exceptions) the only people I could talk to with any sense of ease or interest were students, I felt myself emotionally more on their side of the generation gap than on that of the faculty and administrators whom my six-over-thirty years placed me with chronologically.
This particular campus has hardly been noted for its political ferment, but the past year had seen the first stirrings of a small radical movement, with demonstrations and sit-ins protesting Dow Chemical recruitment and supporting certain local and national issues of civil rights. This had made some of the elders uneasy, and in fact the chancellor had put bars on his office window. I lunched one day with a leading administrator who had been a fifties liberal but now didn’t know what was happening (we can call him Mr. Jones, as in the Dylan song), and lie explained his difficulty in understanding the new generation by observing that “when 1 went to college I wanted to graduate, and then I assumed I would get a job, get married, have children, and eventually die. These kids seem to want something more than that.”
Choking on my faculty club shrimp, I thought: My God, I hope they gel it.
I am not sure that many of the students know what “it” is, yet they know a lot of things it is not—including most of the values and goals of my lunch-partner administrator— and that’s at least a start. ! he latest report to reach me from the student battleground is that the white girls at Barnard are demanding soul lood in the college cafeteria, and I doubt that is “it" either (though it is bound to be an improvement over the sort of sludge that was served, for instance, at the Red Wheel Diner in Urbana, and which most Americans feed on). 1 would guess that most of the rage, intransigence, and “demands" that have increasingly marked the student movement derive in some part from the frustration of their attempts to find the mysterious “it,”the “something more,”the better way than most of us elders have shown them either by instruction or example; and I suspect that some of the adult hostility to the ‘whole student rebellion is a fear that indeed the young people might find “it,”might discover “something more" in their existence than a job, a family, and death: and that wouldn’t be fair to those elders who had missed such meaning in their own lives.
Some such generational hostility seems involved in what is so far die weightiest (nearly three pounds on my bathroom scale) analysis of the student rebellion yet published, The Conflict of General ions by Lewis S. Feuer, who witnessed in horror the Berkeley student rebellion of 19641965 (he feels it led to the birth of the hippies, and even the Watts riots!) while teaching there in philosophy, and is now a professor of social science at the University of Toronto. The book is subtitled “The Character and Significance of Student Movements" but might more succinctly be described as “Daddy Strikes Back.”In the guise of tool, “objective" scholarship, Feuer uses the cheapest kind of Freudian niumbo jumbo to seek to discredit almost everything about the student movement and to ignore what he can’t discredit. (There is not a single reference to the student phenomenon in the McCarthy campaign. though the book goes chronologically as far as the Columbia uprising in the late spring of 1968.)
As in any movement, there is much in the student rebellion open to valid criticism and debate; there are tactics and actions—such as shouting down speakers—that seem I irrational, cruel, and sometimes just plain silly, lint Professor Feuer psychoanalyzes away the most idealistic and sincere actions, seeing always neurosis instead of nobility, complexes rather than commitments. For Feuer, the white college students who went to Mississippi in the summer project oi ttjfi.] were not there because of their interest in aiding a downtrodden race in a desperate situation, but rather were in the grip of a neurotic death wish:
“The students became death-seekers. . . . The strange suicidal trait manifested itself with unprecedented strength in the new American I student movement. . . .” As “proof” of this neuroticism, he reports that in the talk of the students that summer “masochistic imagery of crucifixion and Jesus came into evidence. . . As further “proof" he explains that “the movement’s leaders emphasized that ‘the summer project volunteers were repeatedly warned ahead of time of tiic dangers they would be facing, ” as if the danger were no reality, as it failure to warn them would not have decreased their own safety. Mississippi red-neck racists filled with hate and violence are not the imaginings of neurotit minds, as we all learned from the murder of the three student volunteers; danger in such instances is not a fantasy, and by the same token courage and bravery are not a sickness. Feuer reduces human motivation to the dungheap of psychiatric jargon and dishonors the finest deeds of a generation.
It follows in such thinking that the young protesters against the war have no valid case, have not thought or studied or struggled in their minds and consciences about a course of action that can lead them, and has led some, to jail or exile, but their protest is merely a sick manifestation of Oedipal conflict: “The fathers favor a policy of war in Vietnam; therefore the rebellious sons are for peace.”
Carrying this sort of two-bit analysis into personal cases is difficult. It turns out, for instance, that the Columbia rebel leader Mark Rudd gets along with his father, and his father seems to like and approve of the son, having said once that “we’re glad he has time to spend on activities like politics.” You can’t find any Oedipal stuff there, can you? Just let the professor explain the real motivation of Mark Rudd:
With no challenge of the material environment to call upon Iris efforts, the aggressive energies in this rebellious Jewish youngster sought their channel. Fortunately the university was at hand, the surrogate father, on whom die will to revolution eotdd be rented.
The fiery rebel Mario Savio of Berkeley had what Feuer grudgingly admits was “apparent family equilibrium” (the father and son liked eaclt other), but: “As with so many student activists, the university constituted a surrogate father against whom all the emotions of generational revolt could be channelled.”
Not only the student rebels are psyched out in this kind of parloranalysis, but also those elders who sympathize with any of their causes or problems. Since elder supporters of student movements are not going through an Oedipal phase, their motives have to be explained in some other way, and Feuer slinks to his lowest kind of gutter-analysis in putting down Paul Goodman’s role as a writer and speaker sympathetic to the students and their rebellion. Rather than engaging the serious, incisive arguments of Goodman’s book Growing Up Absurd, Feuer attributes Goodman’s social criticism to that author’s self-acknowledged homosexuality:
Seeking desperately for recognition, lie projects his bitterness as an “absurd” homosexual into a presumed “absurdity” of the American student, the American youth.
Goodman’s courage in speaking of his own private life and problems is of course something Professor Feuer himself shies from in Ins pursuit of a presumed scholarly method. He mentions, without further explication, that he was active in the U.S. student movement in the thirties. Is lie a disillusioned Communist? A turncoat Trotskyite? How did his father feel about it? Did his own political experience leave scars that might explain some of the bitterness with which he attempts to discredit contemporary student activists? Was he one of those thirties converts from Marx to Freud, laying his radicalism to rest on the analyst’s touch? He doesn’t tell us, though lie claims to be writing this tome to “reduce the unconscious guilt” of the student movement! His feelings and attitudes are more accurately revealed in his own definition of what is “normal,” by which lie means good, right, and healthy:
Generational struggle is the preoccupation of student activists but not of the majority of students who find in their everyday studies and advance to independence a more normal path to emotional autonomy.
In a sense, Professor Fetter’s book gave me a better understanding of what the students are rebelling against. When they complain ot the irrelevance of their studies, of the dry and stodgy and complacent kind ot academicism that is principally a prop to the status quo, a rationalization of war abroad and poverty at home, they sometimes sound shrill and excessive. But their most extreme charges seem justified after reading this book that was written by one of their teachers.
Rebellion against the whole view of life and behavior that the book represents seems to me not only a defensible, but an honorable, endeavor. To accept and “learn” the attitudes it presents is to be an accomplice to the murder of the spirit and the death of one’s own humanity. To the extent that the students are rebelling against such “instruction,” they deserve the support of all of us who have not yet buried our own best dreams.