Commentary Magazine


The Unsilent Generation, edited by Otto Butz

Youth Past and Present
The Unsilent Generation: An Anonymous Symposium in Which Eleven College Seniors Look at Themselves and Their World.
by Otto Butz.
Rinehart. 189 pp. $2.95.

 

What is today’s college generation like? This question has been asked with increasing frequency in the last decade. Many adults suspect that the present crop of students lacks the moral, political, and intellectual virtues of the men and women who were in the universities in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In this volume of anonymous autobiographies by eleven Princeton seniors, edited by Otto Butz, one of their teachers, we are offered evidence with which to confirm or reject the generally pessimistic answers. The authors come from all regions of the nation and include the full range of social classes at Princeton. Three are Catholics and three are Jews. In their essays they comment on what they want out of life; their ideas of happiness, success, and marriage; their conception of moral problems; and their attitudes toward the future of America and mankind.

As I read through the autobiographies, I was struck by the fundamental loneliness of the students and the lack of any profound communication among them. They would report some feeling or sentiment as being uniquely their own, and then the same feeling would be revealed in the next autobiography: guilt about sexual relations, for example, or doubt about the existence of God. Anyone who admits to anguish in front of other students, even to a single friend, is not regarded as smooth or cool. It may seem odd that this should be the case with Princeton students, for Princeton attracts students partly because social relations there are supposedly more intimate and warmer than in a state university or an urban college. But it is precisely in the small campus college that personal loneliness is most likely to develop. The organization of undergraduate life in these colleges creates more social relationships than are necessary. To put it in another way, the ties between students become too close for the purposes they have to serve. As a consequence, each individual student is forced to find an area of private feeling to protect himself against the pressures of false intimacy. Add to these burdens the fact of American uneasiness about affectionate relationships between men, and it is not hard to understand why Princeton students could find the expression of personal feeling so threatening.

Their difficulty in communicating among themselves is reflected in the readiness with which the autobiographers resort to the language of sociology and psychology when they discuss their families. A boy who cannot bring himself to admit that his mother and father hated each other, will write instead that “Mother and Father didn’t have a stable marriage.” Or a student who evidently is ashamed of his love for his mother, who despises her, but who feels the need to defend her at the same time, will write that “she has performed two functions for our family which have been no wise less important than what has been contributed by my father.” It is all too easy to see in these statements the corruption of the student imagination by the behavioral sciences, or to recognize in them the inability of the authors to pass beyond very juvenile conceptions of family loyalty. More interesting to me is that concepts like “function” and “stability” provide the Princeton student with a way of publicizing his private experience without having to draw upon specific personal memories and feelings. The Jewish students, incidentally, seemed to use this technique for coping with their loneliness more than did the others. Apparently the Jews have to protect themselves against the expression of too much feeling; not only for the reasons which lead all students toward loneliness, but because Jewish students suffer the further anxiety that their feelings are somehow Jewish feelings, and therefore invalid in the Gentile environment of Princeton. Is it too outrageous to suggest that what Riesman has called the “Oxfordizing” of Jewish students in Ivy League settings is related to the general problem of student loneliness?

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If loneliness is one of the great secret problems of our youth, and if the expression of feeling to overcome that loneliness has such a threatening countenance, perhaps it is not too surprising that the expression of the self through physical activity should be one of the distinctive marks of college life. I have in mind the drinking bouts, furtive sexual games, wild parties, and mass athletics reported by the authors. In the Bacchanalian revelries of crowds intoxicated on liquor or sex the barriers to self-expression are lowered temporarily, and an identification with the group wipes away the sense of isolation. Never again in ordinary adult life will the educated American male overcome his inner loneliness so effectively. The alumni sentiment of most small colleges is built on the fantasied memories of these orgiastic experiences. When these students return to the campus for the decennial reunion, it is these rites of college life that they will desperately, often pathetically, try to re-enact, as their wives and families watch anxiously from the sidelines (if they have not been shunted off beforehand to a ladies’ tea or to a children’s movie by the efficient and understanding alumni office staff).

It seems to me that the devotion to the rah-rah of college is more universal in middle-class culture today than in the last century, in direct proportion to the degree to which bureaucratic organization and suburban life have made it difficult for an adult to acquire roots and a sense of belonging. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., once unwittingly called attention to this phenomenon of modern society. Speaking at his fiftieth reunion at Brown University, he said that “only here did I enjoy a completely independent personality. There has been nothing in my life since then quite like this kind of comradeship.” It is understandable that one of America’s richest men would look back so fondly on his college days; for, in spite of their clubs and fraternities, the Ivy League colleges are more democratic than the public thinks, whereas great wealth breeds adult loneliness. But it is rather terrifying to realize that this nostalgia should also infect the middle-manager, the liberal professional, and the other residents of suburbia.

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I could go on to discuss other features of undergraduate culture which are suggested by these autobiographies: how smug these students are (having been admitted to Princeton, they consider themselves the cream of the nation’s youth); how remote intellectual subjects are from their personal consciousness (or how arid are the imaginations of the few intellectual students); their wholly “bourgeois” conception of moral problems (to be or not to be a virgin at marriage is a big, secret issue for these boys); and their lack of human sympathy (they have only scorn for the youths who did not have the money or brains to make Princeton). But I am more interested in what these traits of mind and personality imply for any questions about the nature of this college generation. Are these students so different from earlier generations of college students in the United States? Many readers will answer in the affirmative. Clearly, they are unlike the men and women—the immigrants and children of immigrants—who worked their way through urban universities twenty to forty years ago; or the lower-class and lower-middle-class students in Chicago, New York, and Detroit today. But I am not sure they are so different from earlier generations of Princeton men. One thinks of Scott Fitzgerald, obsessed by day-dreams of victory in football games he never played and heroism on French battlefields he never saw. The problem of loneliness and the inability to achieve a viable relationship between intellect and emotion plagued him until the very end.

Critics of college youth seem to have forgotten that the response, or lack of it, of today’s generation reflects a traditional American attitude toward higher education and its purposes. I wonder whether the majority of students even in the 30’s were wrapped up in radical movements and concerned with the problems of the adult world.

Perhaps the authors of these autobiographies are more callow than their predecessors. If so, we ought to blame American society as a whole which no longer provides them with habits and norms for resisting the consequences of undergraduate life. It was one thing for a John Foster Dulles or an Adlai Stevenson to revel in campus exploits at Princeton. Coming from strong families headed by men of wealth, intelligence, and responsibility, they had relatively clear-cut life goals; and college could be a pleasant interlude before the habit of hard work was taken up seriously. But today’s Princeton students often were reared in families as faceless as they are themselves: families headed by small businessmen who became rich in the Second World War, by soldiers who stayed on in the ranks and became officers in the Reserve Army, or by very junior executives who are corporation big-wigs today. The boys have been shunted from one high school or prep school to another.

As the parents moved upward in the social scale, the sons have been subjected to a variety of tastes and fashions in the techniques of child-rearing, sexual behavior, clothing, music, reading, furniture, architecture, and religion. The Protestants have had to act more friendly to Jews and Catholics; the Jews and Catholics have learned to accommodate themselves to the Protestants. Even the very rich scions of the old established American families are not different in these respects. They have more money than the other students, but they, too, suffer from a lack of continuity in their traditions. For all these boys, Princeton society is likely to offer the first coherent culture in their experience: it has a fixed and circumscribed locus, a set of firm and established rules and a well-defined hierarchy of statuses. Given the context of other-directed backgrounds, I would guess that the hold of Princeton on its graduates is greater now; indeed, that the influence of undergraduate values on the adult society is going to become more rather than less pervasive.

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Mr. Butz’s choice of title and his Foreword imply a different view of these students. Perhaps he is sensitive to changes in their personalities which will make the present faults of less signficance in the long run. Anyhow, it is not easy to predict the adult future of undergraduates. Fate is unkind to the football hero and the student politician, and it can be equally cruel to the campus intellectual. The boy once acclaimed as a genius may now be mad; the exceptional student may be still just a student. But then those who went unheralded in college perhaps have become prominent writers, scientists and statesmen. Our culture recognizes puberty as a great divide, but it forgets that the years between thirty and forty make another barrier which some men never surmount while it brings out the best in others. Who knows but that these Princeton students will surprise us by 1975!

It is more likely, however, that Mr. Butz and I have divergent interpretations of these autobiographies because our expectations of what these students should be able to say now, and what they ought to feel, even at this stage of life, are different. He calls them “unsilent” because they express uncertainty about their choice of careers, worry about military service, and concern about their belief in God. But in terms of this definition, almost everyone is “unsilent,” including such diverse persons as the girl diarist, the political demagogue and the patient in a mental hospital. To deserve the label of an unsilent generation, these students would have to demonstrate an educated, sensitive, and articulate awareness of themselves and their civilization. And this they do not do.

Perhaps we should not chastise these Princeton boys for shortcomings which we, their parents and teachers, share. Our culture is notoriously “unsilent,” but what does all the noise say? The mass media, the babble of the cocktail party, the controversy of the TV panel, even the psychoanalytic session—all reveal confusion and loneliness, but do they actually express it?

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