Commentary Magazine


The Scranton Report

To the Editor:

Whether the Report of the Commission on Campus Unrest is beneficent, harmful, or merely innocuous (I adopt Robert Nisbet’s formulation [“An Epistle to the Americans,” December 1970]) depends largely on how the contents are reported. Few persons are likely to read the Report itself. I doubt, for example, that the editor of COMMENTARY has read it.

If he had, he could hardly have called the Commission’s description of the new youth culture brief and maudlin [“The New Hypocrisies,” December 1970]. Most of one fifty-page chapter is given to the subject, and it is the product largely of the same “extraordinarily qualified” staff whose historical analysis (Chapter 1 of the Report) Mr. Nisbet rightly admires. The analysis of youth culture as a cause of unrest (Chapter 2) is no less dispassionate.

Nor does the Report, as Mr. Podhoretz charges, ignore the class character of the youth-culture phenomenon. It says: “The college students among whom the youth culture and campus unrest emerged were principally those from affluent families whose parents were liberals or radicals, and who attended the larger and more selective universities and colleges. They were part of the first generation of middle-class Americans to grow up in the post-Depression American welfare state under the tutelage of a parental generation that embodied the distinctive moral vision of modern liberalism” (p. 71, Government Printing Office edition).

The Report does not say that all or even most students, let alone most youth, participate in the youth culture. Rather, it says: “A very large fraction of American college students, probably a majority, could not be said to be participants in any significant aspect of this cultural posture except for its music” (pp. 67-68).

It does say that young people have a “penchant for pure idealism” (p. 62), but it argues that among participants in the youth culture this idealism is accompanied by “at best a lukewarm interest in free speech, majority opinion, and the rest of the tenets of liberal democracy as they are institutionalized today,” and that “some student protest reveals in its tactical behavior a contrary tendency toward intolerance, disruption, criminality, destruction, and violence” (p. 53).

If Mr. Podhoretz has failed to read Chapter 2, he has also misquoted that portion—the Introduction, obviously—which he has read. It does not say that the students’ elders are “entrapped by materialism and competition.” It says that members of a “new” youth culture “see their elders as entrapped. . . .” I deny that this or anything else in the Report constitutes, on the Commission’s part, a declaration of participation in Consciousness III. Despite three months of service on the Scranton Commission, I have yet even to emerge from Consciousness I. We did not endorse the youth culture. We tried to explain its way of looking at the world.

The causes of the youth-culture phenomenon, the extent of it, and the prospects for its endurance and effect on American life remain very much open to debate. But the phenomenon does exist. It is visible even to conservative sociologists, as Peter Berger’s admirable essay in Movement and Revolution attests. It is highly visible even at Boston College, where I teach, from which I infer that it is cutting across the class and ethnic lines that have hitherto defined it. I must report some conversions among the children of the Irish and Italian Catholic lower-middle class.

Martha Derthick
Member, Commission on Campus Unrest
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

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Norman Podhoretz writes:

Like Robert Nisbet’s article, my own comments on the Scranton Report concentrated almost entirely on the section entitled “To the American People” because, as Mr. Nisbet put it, that was “the key chapter of the Report” and the one around which discussion had inevitably come to center. I see on rereading my piece that I did not make the limitations of my focus sufficiently clear. But I do not see how anything Miss Derthick says in her letter, nor how anything in the body of the Report itself (which, for my sins, I have by now read not once but twice), affects my characterization of its attitude toward what I insist on calling the counter-culture and what Miss Derthick, continuing to miss the point, persists in calling “the youth-culture phenomenon.” Did Miss Derthick read my piece with any care, I wonder? If she had, she would surely have noticed that I was attacking the Scranton Report precisely for “reinforcing the widespread but altogether erroneous impression” that the phenomenon in question is a youth culture when in fact it is a movement defined by its ideas and values and behavior rather than by the age of its members. I further attacked the Report for reinforcing the corollary impression, equally widespread and no less erroneous, that the conflict we are all talking about is a generational conflict rather than “a political one cutting across all age groups on an axis of social class and ethnicity.”

The passages Miss Derthick quotes from Chapter 2 of the Report in no sense constitute serious qualification of either of these erroneous impressions. They seem to me, indeed, examples of the kind of “grudging concession to even-handedness” which Mr. Nisbet singled out in another context as a prominent feature of the Report. For what good does it do to acknowledge that the counter-culture has a class character or that its loyalists are “probably” (!) in the minority even among college students, if that culture continues to be represented—in Miss Derthick’s own words—as “the youth culture” and therefore by inescapable implication as the wave of the future?

Similarly with the issue of idealism. If Miss Derthick thinks that the ritualistic qualifications she quotes are enough to make the Report’s maudlin—yes, maudlin, if not, alas, in perfect truth, brief—account into a “dispassionate” analysis; and if she thinks that my refusal to pay serious attention to so transparently protective a rhetorical gesture as the words “see their elders as . . .” represents a misquotation or even a distortion of the spirit of that passage or of the Report as a whole, then she has not read this sorry document to which her name is attached—though not, I would guess from her letter, her mind or her heart.

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To the Editor:

. . . Robert Nisbet’s article bristles with conclusionary epithets, ad hominem insults, and unsociological analysis. Mr. Nisbet makes clear two points: 1) he doesn’t like the Report and 2) he can match the young in expressing outrage and in confusing intensity of feeling with soundness of perception. . . .

Early in his diatribe Mr. Nisbet suggests that a second-rate mind authored the Report, and he concludes the first part of his article with the assertion that the perspective of the Report “serves both logically and psychologically to justify and to encourage [violence].” Granted that “boredom” and “elitism” are also causative factors in campus unrest, their existence does not disprove the Report’s claim that the “crisis of understanding” is a more basic factor. Please tell me how the claim that there is a “crisis in understanding” logically and psychologically justifies and encourages violence. I could with much more logic and reason assert that the perspective of Mr. Nisbet’s article (hysterical hostility to student activism) logically and psychologically justifies and encourages the repressive violence of Kent and Jackson State and the Orangeburg massacre.

But perhaps the most remarkable assertion in Mr. Nisbet’s entire article is: “There is not the slightest evidence to support the view that youth is more likely to be idealistic on the social and political matters than the middle-aged or elderly.” This assertion is not only too categorical and sweeping, but also sociologically absurd and patently false.

That the Scranton Commission called different witnesses from those Mr. Nisbet would have called does not make the Commission seem ineradicably naive to me. What does Mr. Nisbet mean by his allegation that the Commission members “ranged rather widely in immaturity or experience”? Although I can appreciate Mr. Nisbet’s polemical skills, was it really necessary to prefix “Assistant” to Professor Richard Flacks, whom Mr. Nisbet obviously dislikes, or disapproves of, or both, while prefixing “Dr.” to Glen Dumke?

The part of the Report which I read with the most care and which I know the most about in terms of my own background and experience is the chapter on blacks. Reading Mr. Nisbet’s comments on that chapter, with their thinly-disguised arrogance and hardly-contained racism and with their callously unctuous condemnation of black activists, only serves to increase one’s admiration and respect for social scientists like Kenneth Keniston and Richard Flacks. . . .

Compared with Mr. Nisbet, Spiro Agnew seems a most dispassionate and responsible critic, both of the Report and of “the oppositional mentality of youth.”. . .

Kenneth S. Tollett
University of Colorado
Boulder, Colorado

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To the Editor:

. . . Doesn’t Mr. Nisbet realize that the behavior of students today is provoked by “gut” issues, issues which will determine whether we survive as a viable society? Isn’t he concerned with the underlying causes of the malaise rather than with the symptoms and how to eradicate them? His article could have been written about any other time in history, so little does it relate to the unique factors influencing our time. Moreover, the moralizing and indignant flavor of his prose, so characteristic of an elder not hearing the pleas of the young, shows a complete lack of sensitivity to the crisis in so many areas of American life today. . . .

If Mr. Nisbet has a college-age son, one has to wonder about the level of communication between them. Does he hear his son? . . .

Sam Winograd
New City, New York

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To the Editor:

Robert Nisbet’s comments on the “Scranton Report” nicely reflect his expertise in sociological reductionism. Because there is greater difficulty in establishing the validity of a causal relationship between Vietnam or racism and student unrest, we merely constrict the level of analysis and describe (not explain) what happens (and “what happens,” we are told, is the “Berkeley Invention” of pervasive boredom, devised trigger events, and automatic, escalating confrontation). This descriptive summarizing, Mr. Nisbet observes, is the “best of contemporary social science.” I hope not!

Does this “best of contemporary social science” provide us an etiological component of unrest? Well, yes, says Mr. Nisbet: boredom. If we must simplify, however, I would suggest that some students are “sensitized” and “suggestible” to collective or militant response by contemporary political and social events (a polite way to say events lead to “anger” and “frustration”). That this process is most likely to occur at what Mr. Nisbet ominously terms “elitist” schools and among students in the “soft” liberal arts means only that these institutions and students are the most likely to take social and political phenomena seriously.

The Scranton Report is certainly no gem of social research, but Mr. Nisbet’s objections are largely that it didn’t agree with what he has always known—that the ingredients of student unrest are boredom, indulgence, and permissiveness. . . Vietnam? Racism? Political repression? Merely “contextual factors,” says Mr. Nisbet, “unrelated to the differential character of the data.”

Barry M. Schiller
San Fernando State College
Northridge, California

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Robert Nisbet writes:

On reflection I think the worst aspect of the Report was the gratuitous insertion of decidedly political views into a document that was supposed to be a dispassionate analysis of violence and disruption of academic freedom on the campus. Of course there are excellent analyses in the Report. But the Introduction, the Chapter on blacks, and the long recommendation concerning the President of the United States are transparently political, not analytical.

I personally have not the slightest objection to the so-called New Culture of youth. Nor did I have to the hobo-culture of my boyhood, its locale the vicinity of the railroad yard rather than that of the campus. Nor did I object to the bohemian culture in the 20′s and to beatnik culture in the late 40′s and 50′s. What I object to deeply is the occasional hoodlumism of each, and, above all, to the absurd inflation of significance by faculty members and newspaper reporters of “youth culture” in the 1960′s. To see in this alleged culture the makings of a revolution in America, of a new and liberated consciousness, is the single most ridiculous thing I have witnessed in my lifetime. In a very few years the effusions of the Kenistons, Marcuses, Roszaks, and Reichs will seem no more than a bad dream to all but the authors themselves. I predict wholesale embarrassment for those, chiefly from academy and press, who have been, these last few years, shamelessly pandering to youth—that is, of course, affluent, middle-class, bored, alienated, radical youth. But, believe me, gentlemen, flattery will get you nowhere. And the signs of student scorn are already plain to be seen.

To Mr. Winograd’s query about “gut issues,” I do indeed believe in them. Twenty years ago, in a book, I wrote about some of them: the mirage of centralized bureaucracy pronounced humanitarianism, the quicksand of mass-rooted, crisis-oriented politics from the Left, the allure of war to the kind of intellectuals who in 1960 were to surround John F. Kennedy, and, above all, about the quest for, and the desperate need for, autonomous associations and communities in American life. I am persuaded the book remains relevant. To his second query, I plead no sons, only daughters, and no generation gap. The last does me no honor at all. There is no generation gap, only vagrant ideologies in search of recruits. Of all ages.

I am afraid that Messrs. Schiller and Tollett saw demons rather than words when they read my review of the Report. It is a common failing these days. Rather than use valuable space to repeat myself, I shall simply beg them to return to my article, this time for scholarly rather than for passionate reading. They will see the difference between what is said and implied in the essay itself and what somehow became transmuted into angry impression. One conclusion I promise them if they will do what I ask: they will find no hysteria, or racism, no animus against activism or unrest, whether from Left or Right; only animus against hoodlumism whether ideological or non-ideological, black, brown, or white.

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