Kids Without a Country

The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society

by Kenneth Keniston
Harcourt, Brace & World, 495 pp., $8.50

In this excellent, original, and lucid work, Kenneth Keniston has undertaken to analyze and explain a phenomenon that has certainly come to engross Americans as never before. The Uncommitted is a study in depth by a gifted and imaginative psychologist of the processes that lead many of our brightest youth to despise and reject the society in which they have grown up and which has afforded them its best opportunities and advantages. He has studied this problem in the following way:

From a large group of undergraduate men, twelve were identified by psychological tests as extremely alienated. These were selected for special study, along with another group of twelve who were extremely non-alienated, and a third “control group” of students who were not extreme either way. All were asked to take part in a three-year study of their personal development.

For this study, all of the students wrote a lengthy autobiography and a statement of their basic values and “philosophy of life.” All took the Thematic Apperception Test (T.A.T.), which consists of twenty cards, each showing an ambiguous picture, for each of which the research subjects are asked to make up a story. All the students also took part in a wide variety of psychological experiments, ranging from the systematic observations of five-man groups to studies of self-image, from investigations of moral values to research into personal identity. And all were repeatedly interviewed about matters autobiographical, philosophical, and experimental. For three academic years, most gave about two hours a week to the research.

The research reported in The Uncommitted, then, is wholly psychological. But the problem of alienation is as much social as psychological, as Keniston emphasizes both explicitly and in the very structure of his book: It is divided into two sections, “Alienated Youth” and “Alienating Society.” The purpose of this division is clearly to emphasize that society and the individual contribute dialectically to the individual’s alienation. Any excessive stress on psychological factors, or underemphasis on society’s contribution, in principle contributes to the bias which Keniston states in his first chapter he is most anxious to avoid:

The most powerful analyses of our society, like our most profound understandings of human nature, are too often taken as apologies for the status quo. We commonly interpret them to mean that our society is basically sound and that those who cannot reconcile themselves to it would profit more from psychotherapy than from social reform. I think we already hear enough from the pulpits of Academia as well as the megaphones of the mass media about the opportunities, challenges, productivity, material standards, and achievements of our society. We attend too superficially to the human price we pay for these achievements, rarely entertaining the thought that our society’s accomplishments may have outrun its purposes, leaving us with outlived and outworn values. These themes, rather than the virtues of American society, are those I have stressed here.

But despite this caveat to the general, Keniston remains psychoanalytic in…

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