In response to:
Rites of Passage from the June 17, 1965 issue
To the Editors:
Morton White’s review of my Coming of Age in America [New York Review, June 17, 1965] has provided me with the astonishing experience of finding his praise more distressing, because of its tone, than I find his strictures. I have been somewhat concerned, rereading the book as a whole, that it may have come out more snobbish than I meant it to; but his opening paragraph has opened up possibilities in this di-direction that I could never have dreamed of. So as not to con him into thinking his earlier perceptions of educationists were wholly at fault, let me state at once, with reference to Der Rosenkavalier, that I saw the movie. We get art pictures like that sometimes here in Davis, usually on Wednesday. We also turn out, among other people, some gentlemen. The climate, as he implies, is not too favorable to the task, but when production slumped off so badly in the East we felt we had to try. We are an old agricultural school here, and have been working on some new hybrids that look quite promising. They aren’t as tasty as the natural thing, but a lot more resistant to parasites.
He is right, though, in his fundamental objection that the latter and more general half of the book is less “authentic” than the first half. I think it would have to be, consisting as it does of a summary and interpretation of the work of other social scientists. I certainly never thought the argument was original; if it had been I could have spared the reader and myself all those footnotes. And Mr. White is certainly correct in stating that I build on a “nineteenth-century tradition of thought.” “Well-worn” surprises me, I would have thought Stendhal had a lot of pile left on him; and that Disraeli’s ardent supporters who called themselves, rather optimistically, Young England, still provided a better model of conservative devotion to freedom than our contemporary, and even more extravagantly self-styled Young Americans for Freedom. For any reader who really wants to go into this issue, I would recommend the excellent work of my colleague in this Department, Cesar Graña’s recent Bohemian vs. Bourgeois.
Mr. White’s comment that my “…own intellectual limitations…are mirrored in his educational ideals. What he can’t do, namely reason analytically, he demotes…” seems to me more difficult to justify. There is another well-worn tradition in book reviewing, which I sometimes violate myself, though only when a book has made me angrier than mine seems to have made Mr. White, to the effect that book reviews address themselves to the content of the work rather than to the reviewer’s image of the author. Mr. White’s specific comments on my points of philosophical incompetence do not seem to me very strong. His question about what I mean by autonomy he has already answered himself. I do indeed believe that autonomy is an absolute value; but I do not believe for a moment that the autonomous individual is justified in neglecting or ignoring the probable effect of his actions on anyone whom he might reasonably expect to be affected by them. But, having considered this, he makes up his own mind what he ought to do, and he makes it up alone. He is guided by his perceptions of the consequences of his acts, and his respect for the people involved in them, but not by their opinions as to what he should do; except, of course, insofar as these are among the consequences for which he will be responsible. It is nearly always wrong to do murder; but in the very rare event that one might still decide that one must, it would also, I believe, be wrong either to ignore the fact that this action would arouse resentment among the victim’s friends or to allow this fact to color your moral judgment.
Mr. White’s refusal to believe that I meant autonomy to be a moral absolute is, I infer, one factor which has led him to misunderstand subtly but crucially what I mean by empiricism. I mean judging the desirability of an action or policy on wholly instrumental grounds—by whether or not it works, or ought to work. My research subjects—I called them that because I wanted to make it clear that I do not think of them as objects even of inquiry—in responding to “The King’s Visit,” seemed to me distressingly empirical not because they said, in effect, “don’t ask us whether he should be impressed by drags like” Karen and Elfrieda; but because they said, in effect, “don’t ask us whether we should use the meeting to try to impress him, rather than to communicate with him.” It seldom occurred to them, in short, that the King should be treated like a person rather than an object.
Of course, the nine cards for “The LeMoyen Basketball Team” all represent moral judgments, and thereby compel the research subjects to indicate such judgments. When I said that they would not or could not relate these to a larger metaphysical whole I meant that, since they operated on the basis of no consistent conception of moral reality, their choices were therefore chaotic—they handled the cards as if the statements on them were moral maxims from an almanac that sounded good separately, and did not bother about whether their choices, taken together, made sense. The cards vary enough, as the reader can see from the Appendix, that almost any moral position could have been constructed from them by judicious choice. But our subjects could not imagine that this was the problem—the problem had to be something like getting the team going and keeping down conflict within it. On the other hand, and worst of all, the subjects had no trouble at all expressing a coherent moral attitude in their responses to “Alan Slade and His Friends,” which tapped them at the level of ideology—they do disapprove of troublemakers and individualists. An empiricist, to be consistent, must, since they interfere with prediction and control on grounds that cannot be verified or tested.
Finally, Mr. White’s observation that my proposals are anti-intellectual seems to me a more serious challenge. He is certainly correct in observing that “great critics of our industrial society have not labored to show simply that our culture has neglected the claims of sensibility, but rather that it has severed or alienated intellect from sensibility and experience.” Of course, this is exactly the point. But even I am empirical enough to concern myself primarily with those aspects of the social apparatus that seem to me malfunctional, though with the purpose of restoring the function of the whole. We do not suffer from intellectual incapacity; there is absolutely nothing you can’t hire a bright American to do. Both moral and aesthetic sensibility and intellectual development are fundamental aspects of education; but only the former is now critical. Madison Avenue, incidentally, is not acceptable to me as a symbol of the banal degradation I object to. Its ethical habits and social role ceased to be in any way peculiar long ago. It is Pennsylvania Avenue that worries me. And, in view of its protracted and enthusiastic complicity in American executive policy, Harvard Square.
Edgar Z. Friedenberg
Morton White replies:
The situation is complex indeed. Mr. Friedenberg is an admirer of the gentleman’s life but understandably fears that he may be taken for a snob. He is praised in a review that upsets him, apparently because it calls attention—in its favorable part—to the fact that he is more literate and livelier than most “educationists” and is not bashful about displaying his virtues. But it is clear that the review fits even though it pinches the author at a sensitive spot. He would rather be known as a profound moralist than as an opera-going sociologist, but unfortunately I cannot share his view of his own work. Other readers of his book will see how questionable it is to say that it seldom occurred to Friedenberg’s subjects that “the King should be treated like a person rather than an object.” And readers of his letter can assess the profundity of his reflections on autonomy, murder, and empiricism; the dogmatism of his view that only the development of moral and esthetic sensibility is now a critical problem for American education; and the relevance of his statement about poor Harvard Square. But don’t get me wrong, I love Davis, California.