Commentary Magazine


The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (November 1961); and Daedalus (Winter 1962)

The Youth Field

The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 1961 (“Teen-Age Culture,”
by Jessie Bernard).

Daedalus, Winter 1962 (“Youth: Change and Challenge,”
by Stephen Graubard).

Business is booming in the study of youth. Most of the recent books and articles on youth and adolescence have addressed themselves to such practical problems as juvenile delinquency, the not-quite-delinquent “wild-ness” of teen-agers, the impact (or lack of impact) on students of academic values, and, somewhat more generally, the special tensions attendant upon adolescence as a “transitional stage.” But beyond this concern with relatively practical problems, there lies a body of recent work whose preoccupations with youth are intended to tell us as much about adults as about children. I have in mind, for example, Edgar Friedenberg’s fine book The Vanishing Adolescent, Paul Goodman’s much discussed Growing Up Absurd, Kenneth Keniston’s long article last year in The American Scholar, Eric Erikson’s work on adolescence and identity, and James Coleman’s carefully researched but disappointing The Adolescent Society. The latest additions to this literature are the two present symposia, which contain a total of 22 articles.

The major preoccupation of the contributions to The Annals is a quasi-ethnographic fascination with something called “the teenage culture” or “youth culture,” or sometimes “the adolescent subculture.” These terms summarize the belief of many that adolescents are a species of exotica, that they move in a hedonistic, irresponsible, and “expressive” milieu, distinctive enough to qualify for the sociological classification “subculture.” Adolescents, in any case, seem mysterious enough that their parents require manuals on how to understand them.

The central theme of The Annals, however, is that the rebellious, anti-adult, Dionysian features of “teen-age culture” have been grossly exaggerated. One article, it is true, uses teen-age magazines to document the major preoccupations of teen-agers (sex appeal, Hollywood, TV, records, popularity, and so on) and a second discusses the spread of these motifs to Britain and the Continent. But the substance of most of the other selections suggests that the character of adolescent peer groups should not seriously obstruct young people from eventually becoming responsible adults—which is, after all, what most official worriers about youth are worrying about when they worry. For example, Kirk Dansereau sees adolescent behavior as a prototype of the adult world of the near future, in which life will be organized around leisure, not work. Again, a study of rural youth concludes that these young people are fully as traditional and conservative as their parents. Ira Reiss argues that while the sexual codes of adolescents are more liberal than traditional norms allow, for the most part they are quite in accord with the “permissiveness” that actually governs sexual behavior today. And so on. In her editorial summary of the entire issue, Jessie Bernard concludes: “The volume might well be viewed, therefore, as a picture of adult culture today as reflected in the teen-age culture which it fosters.” But adults know that the distorted reflection is temporary (they’ll grow out of it), and this knowledge in large measure accounts for the chuckling benignity with which many adults regard the “excesses” of adolescents. Genuine subcultures are never taken so lightly.

But if The Annals succeeds in making its rather bland point that the adolescent society is far from being beyond the pale of respectability, far from worshipping at the feet of Dionysius, this success ought not to deceive us into believing that “youth culture” is merely a myth. Though genuine subcultures of youth involve only minorities of young persons and, indeed, spill over the usual barriers of age-grading, they do flourish. In what is far and away the best and most interesting paper in The Annals’ collection, David Matza introduces the idea of “subterranean tradition,” which is adhered to by a small part of the population, tolerated by somewhat broader segments of it and, although officially denounced, regarded by the public “with ambivalence in the privacy of contemplation.” He argues very persuasively that in the U.S. subterranean traditions of youth take three major forms—radicalism, bohemianism, and delinquency. He maintains that these rebellious traditions do not attract more young adherents than they do because each has a “conventionalized version” which serves to drain the original of its most significant content. Thus radicalism competes with the tradition of “doing good,” of social reform and community service; the conventionalized version of delinquency, on the other hand, is “teenage culture”; and certain aspects of fraternity life (though Matza admits that this is the most questionable of his parallels) provide a conventionalized version of bohemianism. If you can’t squelch ‘em, co-opt ‘em, seems to be the great American principle of civil order.

One of the many virtues of Matza’s paper is that it enables us to distinguish between the routine, ephemeral, essentially transitional features of adolescence—which can be understood as an attempt by adolescents to cope with the specific temporary pressures our system of age-grading imposes on them—and genuine subterranean (i.e. subcultural) styles—which tend to leave a relatively permanent mark on those who have been extensively involved in them. Exdelinquents, ex-radicals, and ex-bohemians tend to be permanently visible; ex-swooners, ex-hot-rodders, and ex-basketball players do not. I think that an important source of much of the confusion and contradictory noises one hears about youth is the failure to distinguish between youth or adolescence as a chronological age-grade with its distinctly transitional pressures and problems, and youth or “youthfulness” as a configuration of cultural qualities or psychological predispositions, which, although concentrated among the young, are neither exclusive to it nor necessarily temporary. Everybody knows (or says) that some adults are more youthful than others. What they often do not observe is that the tendency to maintain youthfulness in later years is not just randomly distributed. Certain adult milieux are especially receptive to or tolerant of hedonistic, flamboyant, irresponsible, spontaneous, and expressive kinds of behavior; and it is toward these milieux that those youngsters who have been most deeply involved in genuine “youth” cultures tend to gravitate as they get older. Some never “grow out of it,” and as adults they contribute to the maintenance of subterranean traditions from which succeeding generations of youth can draw sustenance.

_____________

 

In Daedalus, only Bruno Bettelheim devotes his entire article to “The Problems of Generations,” but it troubles virtually all the contributors. While Talcott Parsons sees traditional American values as fundamentally unchanged, and believes that youth shares in the widespread consensus regarding. these values, most of the other authors are deeply concerned about “the search for identity,” the conflict of generations, the difficulties of finding anything worth believing in, and the impact of accelerated social change which alienates youth both from the obsolete past and from the enigmatic, unanticipatable future.

A schematic summary of topics like this cannot begin to do justice to the richness and complexity of the Daedalus discussions, which contain some of the very best thinking on youth that I have encountered. Although I do not have space to praise each of the articles individually (and all ten deserve a great deal of praise), I do not think it a quibble to point out that the Daedalus symposium is not, as its title suggests, about “Youth: Change and Challenge.” The symposium is about elite youth, or college youth: the kind of people about whom the myth of “generations” is created. We deceive ourselves, though, if we think that our diagnoses of cultural “generations” tell us much about the actual statistical distribution of experience in age groups. “Youth” is not James Dean rebelling with plenty of cause and choking us up with poignance, just as “age” is not snow-white Robert Frost barking his eccentric wisdom to students in search of a Sage. My father was a young man in the 1920’s, but he never drank bathtub gin, nor leapt into the fountain at the Plaza, nor Charlestoned to jazz, and was certainly not beautiful and gay and damned. But my bet is that his experience, such as it was, was actually more representative than that of those who captured the myth of the 20’s. Culturally speaking, however, it is as if he never lived; history as myth ignores him. Until we free ourselves from this myth of homogeneous generations, we shall continue to be innocently surprised and troubled when surveys of adolescents reveal lots of young people to be quite ordinary reflections of their parental milieux, good, pimplyfaced kids with a host of ordinary problems, who’d be at home in any Y, 4-H club, or Boy Scout troop, and will later be at home in the Methodist church, the Lions Club, and the Republican party.

This, of course, may change as one moves from high school to college and beyond—bohemianism and radicalism are very rare in high schools; they begin to emerge clearly only in college and then by no means equally in every college. But what evidence there is suggests that even most elite youth move rather smoothly through their college years into lifelong commitments to family, community, and career. They do not pay terribly much conscious attention to the search for identity, which, whatever else it is, is not cause for disapprobation by intellectuals. In spite of the clinical concerns of social psychiatrists, “growing up” in our society is perceived not as the gradual development of a firm, stable ego-identity, but as a sobering process of increasing responsibility, deferred gratifications, irreversible roles, and an instrumental approach to the world. And it is this attitude which, from the point of view of a utopian or a Dionysian, renders growing up as “absurd,” and which predisposes many of us to see reluctance and lack of enthusiasm among those who opt for “maturity.” Thus Bettelheim:

If manhood, if the good life in the good community, is the goal of adolescence, then the goal is clear, and with it the direction and the path. But what if existing manhood is viewed as empty, static, obsolescent? Then becoming a man is death, and manhood marks the death of adolescence, not its fulfillment.

With more emotional power than either Goodman or Keniston, Bettelheim is suggesting in this passage that although puberty provides us with a good objective criterion of the beginning of adolescence, we have no objective mark of its end; “maturity” remains essentially a matter of opinion. Several of the Daedalus writers apparently agree with Dostoevsky that “to live beyond forty is bad taste.” Kasper Naegele refers to the Greek wish that youth should not be spoiled by age, and Erik Erikson remarks that the cumulative experience of childhood and adolescence “bequeaths to all methodical pursuits a quality of grandiose delusion.” Under these conditions, then, growing up is indeed absurd. But Daedalus chickens out at the end. Having convinced us that “we” have given “them” a rotten world full of bleak prospects to grow up into, Daedalus turns right around and, like the forced, affirmative Hollywood ending in which the logic of dramatic necessity is blithely discarded in favor of “upbeat” requirements, recommends to the young that they carry on, engagé, heads high.

But if the world of youth, as so many of these writers suggest, really is a truer, wholer, more authentic kind of existence, on what basis do we recommend that it be left behind in favor of the mixed blessings of “maturity”? Because there’s no choice? Because one “has to” grow up? Well, not really; one doesn’t have to. Henry Miller hasn’t. Bertie Russell never grew up. Ernest Hemingway didn’t. Norman Mailer is probably a superior kid today to what he was in 1948. Kenneth Rexroth isn’t grown up. Dylan Thomas died adolescent and so did Charlie Parker. They remain, as the song says, Like Young, and quite unlike those who drink Pepsi. I do not sentimentalize, I do not make heroes of these men, and I do not recommend to anybody their modes of staying young. But it is a fact that these lives are available as models, and plenty of young bohemians and radicals dedicate themselves in this manner to perpetual youth. And who will say that they contribute less to our civilization than the thousands who get up off the couch, bristling with egoidentity, to return, strengthened, to the grim combat of family, community, and career?

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