Some Academics on Affluence
The Nation’s Children.
by Eli Ginzberg.
Volume I: The Family and Social Change, 252 pp. Volume II: Development and Education, 242 pp. Volume III: Problems and Prospects, 242 pp.
Columbia University Press. Each volume, $4.50.
These thirty-one papers were prepared as background reading for the decennial White House Conference on Children and Youth held late in March in Washington, with a vast attendance from all over the country. Clearly, a good deal of care was taken in assigning the papers, and in grouping them in volumes around some single, large theme; most of them, too, were carefully prepared and edited. There are a number of distinguished names here, and some of the less well-known contributors were clearly selected because of their special competence and knowledge.
At one time, when conferences were infrequent, it must have appeared an exciting enterprise to collect and print the papers specially prepared for them and by so doing sum up the knowledge in some wide field. As conferences became more common, and the papers read at them seemed less exciting—perhaps because those presenting them were too busy getting them ready—a greater effort was made to circulate the papers in advance as a basis for discussion at the conference; this is the nature of the present volumes.
But one of the faults of academic life today is that academicians are too confident that their disciplines have something to say about any question put before them. Every contributor to this volume knew that his paper would be read by a vast number of lay participants gathered to confer on problems of American children. Yet how leisurely so many of them summarize the approaches of their special field, or their individual researches, seeming to feel no pressure to think about the main subject of the conference—American children in the 1960’s. Granting that a man who has devoted his life to a discipline may well be convinced of its importance, one still expects more humility—in the form, at least, of questioning, on page one, and not on page fifteen, the relevance of his discipline and these researches to the problem at hand.
Nor do many of the contributors feel any pressure to be at all original; one thinks of teachers with the course that has served them for years. But the academicians, now facing increased numbers of students, and more and more conferences, might do well to remember vaudeville: when it died, the performer could not repeat his successful old act, but had to develop fresh material for his larger mass audience. Of course, there is no point in being original at the cost of being wrong. Yet if the writers in this volume had felt impelled simply to say something new, that in itself, I think, might have led them to think something new. Interestingly, it is a journalist, Eric Larabee (among others we will mention later), who here seems to feel such pressure; but since he himself has no large new revelation to make, he does the next best thing: reports on two studies which, though not new, do tell us something about American children in the past. Too many contributors to these volumes seem quite content to say (and at length!) that we live in changing times—a fact we all know too well.
The volumes present other familiar faults: the exhortatory articles (the preachers so busy urging religion or scientific education or the need to learn about distant lands, that we wonder what has happened to the children); and the special disciplinary quirks (the sociologists’ cheerful insistence, for example, that the family is here to stay, even though it may become something quite unrecognizeable—our interest after all is in the family we know, not the abstract form that the sociologist is convinced we will always have).
But aside from the things we don’t care about knowing, and those we have already heard, what are the interesting pieces in this book? Nelson Foote points out that each of the decennial White House Conferences on Children and Youth since 1909 has been oriented to quite different problems, and he tries to consider what the special issue of the 60’s might be. He tentatively suggests that—given some kind of change in our relations with Russia—it might be the full impact of American affluence. Mr. Foote interprets the new emphasis on personal realization (and he puts this in the same continuum with the search for pleasure, “fun-morality”) as the proper individual reaction to a society in which certain harsh problems of survival can be eliminated; it is not, he argues, an attempt to evade these problems. Nor does he think that this new national mood necessarily means the dissolution of all disciplines: “. . . the traditional discipline of work was not really the discipline of work but of a society which imposed unpleasant toil on the majority as a condition of consumption. . . . ‘Just a job’ was the typical way of speaking of it, but that is not how one describes a profession. A profession offers not just a job but a career, and its morality springs from the assumption that it was entered by voluntary commitment.”
In other words, work as we know it is no real discipline, nor is it much aid in personal realization, for it is hard to demand positive commitment and discipline and morality when nothing presented calls forth these responses. It is especially difficult when most of today’s youth know that there are better things and know that the worst things to which others expect them to be committed often exist out of inertia and stupidity. Occupations which have the color of voluntarism and escape the wheel of necessity, which demand interest, involvement, and skill—this is one way in which the demand for personal realization may be met. These are the “jobs” a rich society can provide—indeed, Mr. Foote seems to be saying, it will inevitably provide them.
Papers by Moses Abramowitz and Seymour Wolfbein on changes in occupations and the educational requirements for occupations do indicate that the jobs we call professional and which Mr. Foote thinks produce their own morality are rapidly rising in number. From this viewpoint, one of the unexpectedly interesting articles is Harold Wool’s “The Armed Services as a Training Institution”; his detailed breakdown of occupational specializations in the armed forces indicates that those in electronic equipment and maintenance (7 per cent) outnumber all those in the infantry (6.9 per cent). One may also find some support for Mr. Foote’s optimistic outlook in the interesting article by Henry David on the huge increase in the number of working women and working mothers. Although this rise represents continuing poverty and misery, the fact that it also parallels a growing prosperity suggests that women are making a positive selection of occupation and profession—thus escaping from their own form of unskilled labor, the home.
Paul Goodman, in a recent series of articles in COMMENTARY, has argued the centrality of work for understanding the problems of youth. Though his judgment as to the meaningfulness of the work provided in America contrasts sharply with Mr. Foote’s, both men have seized upon a radically important theme, and there are a number of articles in this collection which afford some of the material we need to advance the discussion. Of course, statistics on occupational change settle no basic disputes, but I think it is helpful to know just what shifts are taking place in our society in the different kinds of jobs, and what increase can be detected in those jobs that may potentially be classified as challenging.
In addition, I myself found new things in Hyman Lewis’s frank discussion of the Negro family and Horace Mann Bond’s discussion of the distribution of talent among Negroes. There are some other interesting articles in these volumes—enough to start the discussion on American children and youth in the 60’s. One only wonders if there is any way to get the specialists to contribute, more directly and more economically, to that discussion.