One Man's Mead, Another Man's Poison

The mass media often produce stupendous gaps in our thinking. However, these gaps must be replaced frequently because of built-in obsolescence. I still remember the classroom gap. It was operated by the National Education Association, which hinted that the gap could be filled if we were to pour in $30 billion (or was it $50 billion?). Wc neglected to spend the money, and tlie children found classrooms anyway (magic, no doubt). Nobody was impolite enough to bring up the matter again.

The classroom gap was soon supplanted by the missile gap; however, the latter was closed to the public when John F. Kennedy jumped into it and was elected President. The missile gap was replaced by the credibility gap; it was filled—to the brim—when LBJ fell into it. Fortunately (gaplessness drives columnists to suicide) the mass media had already begun to dig the generation gap, which turned out to be the best so far: it is automated to reopen every twenty years, and can last a lifetime if handled with care.

Scholars who have explored the generation gap divide into roughly three groups.

1) Those who can’t find it—of course: they don’t know where it’s at.

2) Those who say it looks just like all other generation gaps—obviously: they aren’t with it.

3) Those who uncover a NEW! GIANT-SIZED! generation gap, bigger than any other— they tell it like it is. The young, they say, live in a world in which the old are not young and which is very different from what it was when they were; therefore, children know best; parents should be seen but not heard; else their children will inform them, in Margaret Mead’s words: “You never have been young in the world I am young in and you never can be.” This is the climactic message of Culture and Commitment: A Study of The Generation Gap. Perhaps one should take the work seriously nevertheless—though the minatory finger the author waggles at the reader does tickle.

Dr. Mead distinguishes three types of culture.

1) Post-figurative—in which the old are models for the young.

2) Co-figurative—in which the peer group is the model for the young.

3) Pre-figurative—in which the children become the model for parents, who must “learn how to alter adult behavior.”

The first two types of culture are familiar, having been described by David Riesman (whose work Dr. Mead does not acknowledge, although she originally reviewed it) as “tradition-directed” (Mead’s postfigurative) and “other-directed” (Mead’s co-figurative). Traditiondirected culture persists when technological and social change is slow enough to make the experience of the old valuable and tradition viable. When change accelerates, and culture becomes discontinuous, the old are seen as old-fashioned, their experience as obsolete, tradition as an obstacle. The young want to meet the future by ignoring the past and its bearers: in the other-directed (co-figurative) culture the peer group assumes authority.

Margaret Mead’s original third type of culture is imaginative, if not imaginary. In her “pre-figurative” culture the young are “natives” in a new world in which their parents are “immigrants.” In this computerized, electronic, atomic “world [which is] a community . . . because all the peoples are part of an intercommunicating network . . . united by shared knowledge and danger” parents must learn from “the young, who have the knowledge”; for “there are no elders who know what those who have been reared in the last twenty years know about the world into which they were born”; wherefore, “this break between generations is wholly new,” and the young “feel that there must be a better way and that they must find it.” For instance, they (or Dr. Mead) feel that it is inconsistent that children are burned with napalm in war while we also try to save those that are so burned. Is this idea really new? or correct? Is it more inconsistent to bomb and also save accidental victims than to drive and also save accidental victims of traffic?

War remains cruel, if not inconsistent: the discovery is new to each generation; neither war nor cruelty is.

Margaret Mead, a highly respected anthropologist, is perhaps our greatest authority on the cultures of the South Pacific. But her knowledge of the vast Pacific does not offset the gaps in her information about the history and sociology of complex societies, including her own; these are the gaps which are conflated into a “wholly new, planetary and universal generation gap” explored, or rather celebrated, in Culture and Commitment.

This “generation gap is worldwide” because there are now “articulate young rebels all around the world who are lashing out against the controls to which they are subjected.” However, far from being “unique, without parallel in the past,” as Dr. Mead thinks, the present student activism is altogether traditional in both extent and character. Worldwide instances, beginning with the Middle Ages, are listed in Lewis S. Feuer’s The Conflict of Generations (Basic Books). The following American examples are taken from a letter which Professor Seymour Lipset circulated to his friends:

At Harvard the police had to be called in several times because of violent rioting between 1807 and 1830. Half the senior class was expelled in 1823. In Princeton half the students were expelled in 1806 following a rebellion, one of six which occurred between 1800 and 1830. Students occupied college buildings while “Nassau Hall resounded to the reports of pistols and the crash of bricks against doors, walls and windows.” Yale fared no better: nor did the University of Virginia, which had to tighten Jefferson’s liberal rules. The targets? Anything from examinations and bad food to politics, morals and religion, “compulsory military training, ROTC, stupid courses.” In 1922 George Santayana wrote that the students “all proclaim their disgust with the present state of things in America; they denounce the Constitution of the United States, the churches, the colleges, the press . . . they are against everything—but what are they for? I have not been able to discover.”

Political student activities perhaps spread furthest in the 1930s. The proportion of students involved was greater than it is now and the rhetoric no less revolutionaiy.

It is hard to see how Dr. Mead could find this “youthful activism

. wholly new” except by sharing the historical ignorance of her young subjects, which is pushing empathy too far.

Culture and Commitment repeatedly asseverates a “rebellion of youth”: it is the proof offered for the existence of the generation gap to be bridged by “pre-figurative” culture. (One can’t always be sure whether pre-figurative culture is described, predicted, or advocated.) Yet there has been a rebellion only among college students, usually in elite colleges, where the students are almost exclusively the offspring of the middle classes. Less than half our youth attend college (a far smaller proportion does abroad). Of this minority of the young less than 10 percent can lie said to have even remotely participated in the rebellion here; fewer abroad.

In the United States (and elsewhere) lower-class youths—perhaps more perceptive than Dr. Meadhave seen the antics of their middleclass age-mates not as “youth rebellion” but as gratuitous psychodrama staged by spoiled or bored or guiltridden youngsters indulged, or helped along, by a flaming faculty and smoldering parents.

Dr. Mead shows no awareness of the class character of the activity, which constricts its extent and significance so severely as to make the notion of “planetary youth rebellion” altogether bizarre. She does what freshmen are warned against: universalizing the outlook of her rebellious middle-class students and friends into that of “youth.” Anthropology, bereft of its empirical character, easily becomes wishful thinking.

Culture must become “pre-figurative” because the old no longer can be models or leaders. The world has so radically changed that they become “immigrants” while the young are “natives” of the future; hence the “youth rebellion.”We are left to figure out why the changes since 1940 are so much greater than other changes in the past: the Renaissance, the French Revolution, and quite a few others. Even in recent history it might be argued that, so far, space exploration, the computer, and atomic energy have changed our culture less than the automobile did, or electricity, or even the movies. Further, there seems to be no correlation between the abruptness and size of the change and “youth rebellion.” In Israel, for instance, the old are actually immigrants, while the young are native to a quite different society and culture: the contrast between Jewish existence in the shtetl and in Israel could hardly be greater. Yet there are no signs of “pre-figurative” culture in Israel—the young accept the leadership of the elderly immigrants, who seem quite able to cope with the new circumstances. Perhaps Israel confuses the issue—as does the whole Near East, China, India, the Soviet Union, North Korea, the whole of Africa, Switzerland, England, all of which, despite the “intercommunicating network,” seem to make do without much “worldwide youth rebellion.”

Closer to home, all investigators agree that most of the “articulate young rebels” who, according to Dr. Mead, demonstrate “the break between the generations” merely continue the radical careers of their parents. There is no “breach between them and their parents.” They enact the revolutionary attitudes the parents never ceased to dream of, even after affluence drove them to Scarsdale. The students, having rich parents, can afford to worry less about careers than their parents did: they can give full time to embodying their parents’ radical dreams. (In this respect Mark Rudd, Bettina Aptheker, or Cathy Boudin do not break with the older generation any more than William F. Buckley Jr., does.)

Is there nothing new then? There is, but not where Dr. Mead looks for it. For the student rebels, 1922 vintage, Santayana prescribed the opposite ol what Culture and Commitment prescribes for the 1970 oop. Yet his 1922 diagnosis fits the 1970 rebels, while Dr. Mead’s does not: “They think they need more freedom, more room, a chance to be more spontaneous. I suspect they have had too much freedom, too much empty space, too much practice in being spontaneous when there was nothing in them to bubble out.”

There still is “nothing to bubble out —except the cliches used by the last three generations, dramatized now by obscenities. The tired phrases in Culture and Commitment—for example, “the transformation of man’s age-old problems of production into problems of distribution and consumption”—are not staler (or more accurate) than those used by the “articulate young rebels.”

The “drastic irreversible division between the generations” expresses no more than the feeling, and the wishful fantasy, which is cultivated by the young of all times. Sharing it keeps Dr. Mead “with it”—and also expresses the older generation’s fear of being left out of things, of being “lonely.”

The intensity of this fear is the major new element in the situation. As the peer group assumes authority, as respect for age decreases, the desire of the aging to be “with it” becomes frantic. The rapid pace of technological change, the affluence of the middle class, the lessened fear of joblessness, all combine to reduce the authority of the old in the eyes of the young.

The belief that the young know “where the action is,” and “have the knowledge,” is of course readily accepted by them: which is not news.

that scholars of Margaret Mead’s age and stature solemnly produce pre-figurative culture" to confirm the rumor is news. The credulity of youth, instead of being chastened, and offset, by the skepticism of their elders, is shielded now by the wistfulness and the will of the old to believe as the young do, and thus to remain still young.