Man of Distinction

Democracy and the Student Left

by George Kennan
Bantam, 224 pp., $1.25 (paperback) (paper)

George Kennan
George Kennan; drawing by David Levine

George Kennan’s famous controversy with the students, consisting of his speech at Swarthmore College, numerous replies by students and teachers, and his own reply to the replies—all published in the paperback Democracy and the Student Left—revolves around two issues: Mr. Kennan’s idea of what a university should be; and his reflections on the behavior and attitudes of the rebellious students in their reactions to the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism, and other issues.

The interest of the debate lies in the light it throws on Mr. Kennan as a controversialist. This is complex and fascinating. Mr. Kennan takes up an aristocratic position against rebellious plebeian opponents whom he condemns with curling Roman lip, condescending only occasionally to some bleak expressions of sympathy with them. He talks always from the standpoint of values so radiant that several of those who argue against him do so with protestations of pain and compunction, torn between their feelings of disagreement with, and their admiration for, him. Others, like Lucifer confronted by the Almighty, are provoked to blasphemy and obscenity.

One suspects that for Mr. Kennan the most decisive consideration is really style, to which he attaches an exalted importance, and in which he finds the students so remarkably deficient:

…Another characteristic of this generation of students is of even broader significance and presents a particularly sharp contrast to the student population of my own day. This is the lack of interest in the creation of any real style and distinction of personal life generally. While this often finds its expression most strikingly in dress, it goes much deeper and enters into manners, tidiness, physical environment and even personal hygiene. The idea that life could be made richer, more tolerable and enjoyable, and even perhaps more useful socially, by an emphasis on the being as well as the doing, by a cultivation of the amenities, by the creation of a dignified and attractive personal environment; the recognition that if great masses of people are to be elevated out of degradation or vulgarity it is important that some people should set an example of graciousness and good taste; the thought that one might even gain strength as an individual and communicate some of it to his intimate entourage by lending to his personal life qualities that sustain confidence in the very possibility of a rich, wholesome and unsordid human experience: all this seems to be quite foreign to the writers of these letters.

One might disagree with this and yet agree that it is true from his point of view, by which I mean the angle of his style. This angle might be described as statuesque. One would scarcely expect Mr. Kennan, standing on a column and crying out as it were to become chiseled immortality, to notice that many of the letters written to him about his article were extremely polite, several of the…

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