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Rites of Passage

Coming of Age in America

by Edgar Z. Friedenberg
Random House, 300 pp., $5.95

Who would have thought thirty years ago, when this reviewer took a deadly course in what was called education, that in the year 1965 America would produce a specialist in that subject who could refer knowingly to Gide’s actes gratuits and to Der Rosenkavalier, quote Ortega y Gasset favorably, write stunningly about the feelings of high school students, and defend the life of the gentleman? One might just as well have predicted that America would, in the words of the late J. L. Austin, produce a goldfinch that quoted Virginia Woolf. And yet Professor Friedenberg is just such a rarity. From Davis, California he cries out against the leveling tendencies of the American high school and of American society. In his argument he uses all the statistical means and modes at his disposal, and he discourses learnedly about autonomy and empiricism; and yet during the whole procedure his prose sparkles and his heart aches for the neglected humanist in the eleventh grade. He believes that in our mass society too many high school students have been turned into opportunists and that the sensitive adolescent intellectual has as good a chance of coming through the American high school happily as an honest man in a Madison Avenue public relations firm.

Although I disagree with a great many things in the book, I want to say at once that it is extremely well written, that it is provocative, and that it ought to be read by anyone interested in the education of adolescents. No reader with a shred of feeling can help being touched by Friedenberg’s concern for children who don’t fit into the mould created by their dreary peers, petty principals, and petit bourgeois teachers. And who can bring himself to deny that our high schools should encourage more respect for privacy, for inwardness, and for all of the other things that Friedenberg summarizes by his use of the modish word “subjectivity”? But it is one thing to speak out movingly for all of these things, and another to write a philosophically cogent and sociologically penetrating study of the vast subject covered by this book. When Friedenberg is not accurately and delicately recording how his subjects, as he calls them, feel, but lecturing us, for example, on the nature of mass society and the evils of empiricism he is much less winning, much less persuasive, and—greatest failing of all for one of his philosophical persuasion—much less authentic.

I have written some friendly and some fighting words. Let me try to justify them. First I turn to the best part of the book. Armed with statistics, with style, and with a nice supply of irony in his soul, Friedenberg makes a striking assault on “The Structure of Student Values.” That chapter takes up more than a third of the book. In preparation for it he spent a full year interviewing twenty-five students in each of nine high schools. He tried very hard to pick his subjects in a random manner and he supplemented his tests with interviews. His procedure was, in essence, the following. He invented an imaginary high school called “LeMoyen,” as well as a set of six connected narrative episodes about it. Associated with each of these episodes was a series of nine cards, each of which bore a comment on the episode. The student was asked to evaluate these nine card-comments. One of Friedenberg’s most instructive episodes was called “The King’s Visit,” in which the students were told that the king of a country not unlike Denmark was to visit their high school, a king interested in meeting “spirited young people.” They were also told that “such young people as were to be chosen should be persons to whom the school could point with pride as expressing what was finest and best about their school.” Then the students were given cards which carried little descriptions of fictitious candidates, and their task was to rank them for the honor (or job) of meeting the king. Their top choice 69 per cent of the time was either one of two rather dull characters. The first was a well-groomed, polite valedictorian called Karen Clarke, who was “completely in command of herself in any situation” and “the perfect model of what a high school student ought to be.” Next came Elfrieda Eubanks, who “is so sweet that you couldn’t help liking her, and everybody at LeMoyen does. She’s president of the Girl’s Athletic Association and a sure thing for the Chamber of Commerce’s best All-Around Girl award this spring.”

Since he interviewed the students Friedenberg was able to talk to them about their reasons for their choices. On the basis of his privileged access to their narrow minds he tells us that the reason why 69 per cent of them made Karen or Elfrieda their first choice is that nearly all of them thought they were being faced with a problem in the establishment of good public relations. Although they were to pick the “finest and best” of their school, and had a wide open field in construing those words, they insisted on interpreting the “finest and best” student as the one who would make a good impression, and thought that to make a good impression one would have to “know how to talk to the King.” to be “well-rounded,” and to be a “good mixer.” One certainly could not be sloppy, like Scott Cowen, the school genius, mathematician, chess player, and literary editor. The students also shy away from an unkempt orator and basketball player called Johnny Adams, because, like Scotty Cowen, he does only what he feels like doing. In general, to use Friedenberg’s own words, his subjects’ responses to “The King’s Visit” showed their dependence on external judgment as more important than self-approval and internal coherence, their suspicion of specialized personal competence unless directed and controlled by the school or the group for social purposes, and their skepticism that the King’s visit could have any other purpose than good public relations.

We need not go into more detail about Friedenberg’s methods nor about the sort of conclusion that he draws on what might be called the first (and best) level of his analysis. He has great gifts in reporting how children feel about well-rounded people, mixers, sloppy people, and unshaven basketball players, and his observations are brilliantly formulated and cogently defended. But it is important to point out that Friedenberg does not limit himself to such homey observations about his subjects. Like so many behavioral scientists who study values, he tries to rise to a higher level on which he begins to use the terminology of philosophy, and here is where the reader begins to have a certain amount of difficulty in understanding or believing what he has to say. Here we are not completely at Friedenberg’s mercy, for he is making inferences from premises and by steps that are before our eyes. The students didn’t tell him that they didn’t like Scotty Cowen because they didn’t value autonomy: Friedenberg inferred that they didn’t from statements which they made and which he reports to us.

I do not object in principle to such inferences, but I don’t understand what Friedenberg means by the word “autonomy.” Does he think that an autonomous person does what he feels like doing without any attention to the interests or wishes of others in his group, and that autonomy in this sense is an absolute value that his subjects are wrong not to share? Surely Friedenberg believes that sometimes when we do what we feel like doing, without attention to the interests of others, we act wrongly, and therefore that autonomy as such is not an unqualified good. Under what conditions, then, is it a good? Friedenberg doesn’t say. I hope the reader will excuse me if I sound excessively Socratic, but I know no other way of calling attention to Friedenberg’s lack of philosophical acuity.

Let me give a more crucial example of the same defect. Friedenberg criticizes his young subjects (and our society) for being addicted to empiricism, but what is empiricism as Friedenberg understands it? He thinks the students exhibited it in their reaction to “The King’s Visit” because they chose as their representative someone who would make a favorable impression. They confined themselves to asserting what Kant calls an imperative of skill. If you want the king to be impressed, they seemed to say, send him Karen and Elfrieda, but don’t ask us whether he should be impressed by drags like them. To be an empiricist in this sense, then, is to avoid ethical assessment, and more particularly, to choose a non-ethical rather than an ethical interpretation of words like “finest and best” when presented with a situation in which one might interpret the words in either way.

So far, Friedenberg’s analysis is very illuminating, and it is greatly to his credit that he reveals this unfortunate tendency by a masterly use of well-designed statistical techniques. But he is not content with calling the kids empiricists in his first sense. This is evident in what he says about them when they are faced with the episode called “The LeMoyen Basketball Team.” Here the cards are stacked so that they must make a moral judgment: they can’t do otherwise if they are to answer the question. So Friedenberg cannot accuse them of empiricism as previously defined, and therefore he accused them of being empiricists in another sense. What is that? When they appeal to the idea of equality of opportunity and insist that Kevin McGuire should not be kept off the team because of his race or religion, Friedenberg still condemns them because, although they appeal to a moral principle, “they don’t really care whether their idea of how a democratic society works makes sense, because to them understanding something means knowing how to handle it; it does not mean being able to relate it to a larger, metaphysical whole.” Now Friedenberg has his poor subjects coming and going. To avoid his disapproval, they must not only construe all value questions as moral questions when they have the choice, but when they answer moral questions they must be able to relate their conclusions to “a larger metaphysical whole.” Does Friedenberg tell us what he means by this dark saying? Not at all, and so by the time we and Friedenberg leave LeMoyen’s corridors together we begin to worry about his power to guide us through the clouds of sociology and philosophy that loom ahead.

Indeed, we begin to suspect that Friedenberg may not know what he is talking about in the higher realms, and such suspicions are more than confirmed by later chapters in which he begins to talk about the highest aims of education. Earlier, when he is being so lofty about the empiricism of the students and deplores their failure to establish contact with larger metaphysical wholes, the reader may think that Friedenberg is some kind of rationalist who wants children to be taught how to forge a logical link between their moral judgments and ontological structures, as the saying goes. But when we come to the last chapter we find this kind of scholastic logic-chopping is as far from Friedenberg’s mind as it could possibly be. The argumentative boy is no gentleman. What Friedenberg wants to cultivate is inwardness and subjectivity. Hence his sociological hauteur about IQ tests, which, he says,

reward a cognitive style that is especially bourgeois. While they demand a verbal facility and a familiarity with abstract symbolism and with the goods, services, and proper social attitudes of the middle class that make it very difficult for lower-status children to give the right answer, they also penalize any youngster who approaches the test with the stance of the amateur, however gifted.

Now it may be that “lower status” children are penalized by I.Q. tests but I cannot agree that amateur juvenile seers are disadvantaged by having to understand “abstract symbolism.”

As the clouds lift a bit we can see the lack of originality in Friedenberg’s theorizing. Building on a well-worn tradition in nineteenth-century thought, he thinks that our mass society has encouraged the empiricism of bureaucrats and the “abstract symbolism” of shopkeepers in the name of equal opportunity. And so, in conformity with an anti-intellectualist, romantic stereotype that I find indefensible, he sees middle-class boys calculating, experimenting, climbing, never evaluating, avoiding metaphysics, and paying no attention to their inner lives. Therefore, in another familiar move, Friedenberg decides that we must play both ends against this middle class. We must revive the amateur, the gentleman, with his humanity and trustworthiness, his sense of style and personal integrity, his taste for intimacy and his contempt for calculation. But where, in this society, shall we find him? Mainly in the slums, says Friedenberg in a burst of inverted snobbery that allows him to have and eat his cake of custom. Friedenberg will beat Madison Avenue, as a knowing New Yorker might say, by joining Madison Street. But as one who knows a good deal about Madison Street I can testify that while humanity, integrity, and trustworthiness certainly flourish there, they do so in about the same degree as they do on most other residential streets of the world. And even with due attention to what he says about Dr. King and the late Medgar Evers, I cannot take seriously Friedenberg’s statement that “one hardly ever encounters examples of aristocratic bearing among any…contemporary Americans” besides Negroes. Nor can I take seriously his proposal that we set up federally supported boarding schools for “culturally deprived” children who show signs of becoming gentlemen in his sense while other more conventional adolescents continue in public and private schools. I see no objection to giving special encouragement to the distinguished of all kinds, whether they be sensitive, bright, or both, but it seems grotesque to form a special institution for those who seek primarily to “understand the meaning of their lives and become more sensitive to the meaning of other people’s lives” while their contemporaries are segregated in other schools, presumably doing geometry, physics, and social studies as they learn about space, time, and mass society.

What is to be said in a more general way about all of this? For one thing, that Friedenberg’s own intellectual limitations and his prejudices in favor of Gemeinschaft are mirrored in his educational ideals. What he can’t do, namely reason analytically, he demotes; and what he can do, namely respond sympathetically, he promotes. But just as inwardness is not enough when one wants to be a philosopher of education, so the cultivation of inwardness is not the only or the highest aim in educating the young. I am sure that we have sinned in our failure to develop a respect for intimacy in our children, but I am also sure that we have sinned in our failure to develop their power to think. I am not talking about power in physics and mathematics. I mean the ability to reason clearly and consecutively about matters of the greatest human importance. I deny therefore that what we need today is only or mainly to resist the depredations on inwardness conceived as narrowly as Friedenberg conceives it, for modern society has victimized the mind in a more thorough way. It has not only discouraged those (in and out of high school) who want to understand “the meaning of their lives and become more sensitive to the meaning of other peoples’ lives and relate to them more fully,” but also those who want to think coherently and honestly about politics, literature, religion, history, science, law, and, of course, education. Therefore, if we want to battle effectively against the encroachments of mass society we must try to protect not only the poet against the philistines, but also, to put it simply, the philosopher in us all.

Friedenberg may speak with authority about his subjects while they are in high school, but others of us know what they are like after they escape, and we don’t think that their only or chief failing is their lack of taste for intimacy, inwardness, and integrity. Besides, I don’t quite see how the young people at Berkeley and Selma—some of whom Friedenberg may have been studying at LeMoyen—could have risen up in their wrath if Friedenberg were altogether right about their personalities or about the deadening effect of mass society on their emotions. My plea, therefore, is for something broader, deeper, and more radical in the reconstruction of our educational aims. We must do everything possible to encourage the union of analytic power, culture, and feeling in our students. I would remind Friedenberg that the great critics of industrial society have not labored to show simply that our culture has neglected the claims of sensibility, but rather to show that it has severed or alienated sensibility from intellect and experience. Their educational message, then, is not that we should weep only for the eleventh-grade poet who is no good at math, or simply to realize that there is such a thing as the “high creative” as well as the “high IQ” student. We must teach our young people to cease being well-rounded squares, LeMoyen style, but we must also educate them to be whole men—to use a phrase that has unfortunately been corrupted by others besides Barry Goldwater. For the whole man, unlike the beatnik and the gentleman “C”, is capable of thought and feeling, of analysis and empathy, of learning and loving, all of which we and our society desperately need. And if only Professor Friedenberg could have brought himself to see this he might have produced a much better book than the interesting and challenging book he has written.

Letters

The King’s Visit July 1, 1965

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