Commentary Magazine

Crestwood Heights, by John R. Seeley, R. Alexander Simm, and Elizabeth W. Looseley

Suburban Happiness
by Nathan Glazer
Crestwood Heights: A Study of the Culture of Suburban Life. By John R. Seeley, R. Alexander Simm, and Elizabeth W. Looseley. Basic Books. 505 pp. $6.50.

“Crestwood Heights” is a well-to-do suburb of Toronto. I am not sure precisely how “well-to-do”—one of the problems of this book, indeed, is that just this kind of specific information is often lacking. Yet one would guess that the houses start at about $30,000 or $35,000, two cars are common, the school system seems to be one of the best in Canada, the children all spend their summers in camp, most of the men are either independent entrepreneurs or well-paid executives and professionals, and the women are well educated and intensely interested in what contemporary psychology has to tell them about making the lives of their children and husbands happy.

There are many such communities in America, and the interest of Crestwood Heights mainly derives from what it has to tell us about this suburban way of life which has become the ideal, in ever increasing measure fulfilled, of a very large proportion of the population. But the research project of which this book is one result had a more restricted interest than the study of suburban culture in general. The plan was to study a number of Canadian communities so as to discover what might be done to improve mental health. This is of course no simple matter—essentially it involves nothing less than increasing the level of happiness. To carry out this purpose in Crestwood Heights, psychological clinics were established for the children that worked in close cooperation with the schools, special classes were instituted for teen-agers where they could discuss all their problems, and the adults formed discussion groups. The book’s findings are based on information drawn from these sources, and of course from more traditional ones—interviews, census, etc., etc.

The aim of improving mental health inevitably limited the study; the fact that it was conducted in a suburban setting, from which the men are usually absent during the day, further limited it. We find out little about the men’s lives at work. We know only that it is a great strain to earn the money that maintains the Crestwood Heights way of life. There is nothing here about politics, while the whole area of amusements or—in view of how un-amusing these often are—“leisure time” pursuits, and of specific cultural activities (books, movies, radio-TV, etc., etc.), is left vague. But we get an excellent idea of the emotional tone that surrounds leisure and culture. It is an anxious one: are we doing the right thing? And the right thing is defined largely by what is best for the children, not for oneself.

But even what is best for the children is quite a problem. In the detailed accounts of how children are raised, family life organized, and the schools conducted, we are told again and again that two major sets of values are in conflict: “maturity” values and “success” values. Maturity values are those which emphasize personal happiness and freedom, and which (according to present-day psychology) require love, mothering, and understanding for their proper development. But then there are “success” values. No one wants his child to be a happy bum. The children should make enough money to live at least as well as their parents do. And if the kind of parental behavior that produces psychological maturity also brings forth a child who will not get good marks, not get into the university, not acquire all the advantages a Crestwood Heights parent wants for his child, then what?

The women tend to think that if the child is “mature,” if he has been raised with the proper mixture of love, training for freedom and responsibility, and so on, he will want to get good marks, go to college, enter upon a lucrative career. The men are inclined to believe that if he doesn’t follow the path dictated by the success goal he won’t be happy—so he might as well buckle down and get good marks right now. But it is a delicate balance that must be maintained between “maturity” and “success,” freedom and responsibility, and it produces great strain in parents and children, and places a heavy burden on the progressive school system.

This story is not an unfamiliar one, but it has never been told in such detail and with such psychological subtlety. It suggests why, with all ‘the advantages enjoyed by Crestwood Heights children, they are not any “happier” than less privileged children—indeed, perhaps they are a bit unhappier.



But Crestwood Heights also has a less familiar story to tell. Having described the process of raising children in Crestwood Heights, the book goes on to discuss what is called the “Belief Market”—in effect, where the parents get the ideas that apparently guide them in rearing the young. Here the authors make a unique contribution and quite break through the conventional notions entertained about the subjects of child care, mental health, and psychotherapy. They point out that these disciplines are very far from “scientific,” and they see little chance of improvement. The ideas of the experts change so rapidly as to suggest that it is not new knowledge and research that lead to the abandonment of one approach and the adoption of another—as is the case with a scientific hypothesis—but rather a drive for novelty and variety. Not that the experts in these fields are necessarily less skilled or less serious than other scientists; but their audience, in its desperate need for guidance and reassurance, will seize upon their unformulated ideas and immediately make dogmas out of them, setting up the experts themselves as prophets. Now it is very hard for the expert to resist this effort to turn him into a prophet. Every disclaimer of competence (and there cannot be too many) on the part of the professional is seen as becoming modesty by his amateur audience, who probably believe themselves to be even less adequate judges than they really are. And once he has been turned into a prophet, the expert is committed to his ideas, however tentatively he may have put them forth originally. When the new revelation runs its inevitable course to disappointment, the audience begins searching for yet another revelation, and in the nebulous and variegated world of ideas in which these disciplines move someone is sure to provide it.

Even more interesting is the analysis of the three-cornered relationship obtaining between the experts, the men, and the women. “The father,” says David Riesman in his excellent introduction, is “in charge of the department of realism (with sentiment his understudy), and the mother in charge of the department of utopianism (with practicality in reserve).” It is the women who believe that people can improve themselves and that general laws governing behavior can be discovered, and who consequently form the clientele of the experts. The men are more skeptical.1 But despite their optimism, the women know that it is not easy to change people and improve one’s life, while the men, because of their immersion in practical affairs, are extremely naive about what can be done with human beings. At the school meetings, the women invariably listen earnestly to the expert explanations of why Johnny can’t read; the men irritably refuse to see why the problem should be so difficult.

The men consequently resent the experts and see them as feminine. These distinctions between the men and women of Crestwood Heights can be described in many ways. One might call the women “other-directed” and the men “inner-directed,” but that would be a serious error. In the opinion of the authors, the women are struggling seriously with their problems in a realistic modern way, while the men are stuck in backward and not very useful modes of thought. Certainly the women come off better—in part because their understanding of themselves and their problems makes them feel worse.

And as for mental health? Not only are there no easy answers for Crestwood Heights: the authors, in character with all they have said about the new disciplines, close with no answers at all. They propose new research and new studies. And one is left with the empty feeling that Crestwood Heights, with all its wealth, its psychological understanding, its sensitivity and tenderness, its humanity, must suffer, that it can find no way out—as yet—of the conflicts that make life difficult.



1 The authors also found an interesting difference between the Jews (who make up more than one-third of the population of Crestwood Heights) and the Gentiles: “The tendency . . . was for Jewish intellectual analysis and feeling to run from whole to part; for Gentile, to run from part to whole: for Jew to try to settle first the general and then to derive the particular; for Gentile to try to settle, first, particulars and then scan for pattern or generalization. . . .” But they make little of this difference, which is indeed the only one referred to between the two groups. One can only speculate as to what more might have been discovered if the authors had turned their attention to other Jewish-Gentile differences. In any case, it is perfectly clear that the culture of Crestwood Heights is the culture of Jewish suburbia in general.


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