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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 all particulars. The picture of personality structure underlying alienation in upper-middle-class youth that emerges is convincing and relevant. Any doubts one may have about generalizing from a twelve-man sample dissolve as soon as one reads Keniston’s construction of how these young men came to be what and who they are; it is right, as obviously as those dinosaurs at a World’s Fair Sinclair Pavilion are right; what the painstaking techniques of science create proves to be, happily, just what the imagination requires. To summarize is inevitably to do injustice to the clarity and richness of Keniston’s discussion. What the uncommitted have in common, etiologically, is the experience of having been reared in families in which the father, though often celebrated in the great society, has withdrawn from the demands of family life and particularly from those of his wife; in which the wife and mother has responded by becoming seductive and treacherous in her urgent need to extract at least minimal attention and emotional support from her husband and sons. As boys, these alienated subjects respond by hating and mistrusting the father for his weakness, and fearing the mother for her ability to get them on her side and use them against the father whose wretchedness brings them to despair. There is no one they can trust. Consequently:

The alienated consciously and unconsciously see adulthood in our society as asking a price that they are unable and unwilling to pay. Unconsciously, adulthood involves relinquishing for good the fantasy of infantile fusion; consciously, it involves “selling out,” abandoning their dreams and visions, committing themselves to people, institutions, and causes which they see as making destructive claims on them. Adulthood means accepting an adult self-definition which entails limitation of awareness, openness, and genuineness; it involves materialism, boring work, being controlled by the demands of others.

This is a pivotal passage in Keniston’s argument, and he is quick to guard against its misuse. His methodology has obliged him to speak in psychoanalytic terms; and he immediately cautions us that:

The very existence of reluctance…should make us ask whether the rejection of adulthood may not be related to the demands of adulthood itself. We must entertain once again the possibility that the alienated are responding not only to their own psychic predispositions but to the facts of adult life in America.

The second half of The Uncommitted deals with those facts as Keniston interprets them. It is very good in its way, clear and telling; but it is far less authoritative than the first half. Here, Keniston is not dealing at all with his own data or even with primary sources; what he gives us is an extended essay on American civilization and its discontents rather in the manner of Daniel Boorstin or David Riesman. What he is trying to do in this essay, is to explain what it is in the way our society works, that makes it particularly hard on “The Uncommitted.”

His psychological training permits him, in doing this, to make use of an analytic tool seldom employed in studying the workings of society, but admirably suited to his purpose. The very first name in Keniston’s Acknowledgements is that of the late Henry A. Murray. It is Murray, of course, who developed the T.A.T. referred to earlier as a central instrument in Keniston’s study. But, more than that, Murray also developed the intellectual structure on which The Uncommitted is based. This is the idea that the interaction between an individual and his environment may be most clearly categorized and described if the individual’s needs are thought of as interlocking with a corresponding set of what Murray calls “environmental press.” The same terms are used in describing both needs and “press”; and adjustment is most comfortable in a situation in which they are complementary rather than similar. A man with a strong need for abasement, for example, will relish a situation that presses to dominate him, while one in which he was treated with respect would make him more nervous. The needs-press formulation is not, of course, a psychological theory; it is merely a kind of cartographic device. Keniston does not make formal use of Murray’s categories and terminology; but he follows him in treating society as a set of demands that impinge on its members, who then respond according to their own needs.

This approach helps Keniston clarify, when he discusses “Alienating Society,” what it is specifically about the society that bugs alienated youth. Parts of this discussion are really brilliantly helpful. I like especially his chapter on “The Dictatorship of the Ego,” in which he shows how the development of the rational, highly cognitive “technological ego” is cultivated by our society at the expense of feeling and moral sensitivity. His kind of alienated youth, who are encumbered by excessive feeling and almost morbid moral sensitivity, are thereby forced into an anti-intellectual posture (non-alienated, or Gung-Ho, types would say “posture”) that deprives them of the use of their superior intellectual skills, which they might have deployed on behalf of the values they cherish—thus diminishing further their chance and their inclination to commit themselves to any kind of social action.

But society is more than just the environment; it is an organism with structure and functions, if not purposes, of its own. By treating it as if it were a set of environmental press, Keniston’s discussion of society overstresses its effect on how it makes people feel about it and about themselves. Society, however, consists of far more than our emotional response to it: institutions, roles, networks of communication, hierarchies, all of which affect, not only our feelings, but our expectations, and our opportunities and inclinations to do something about our feelings. He does a fine job of showing what it is in our society that makes it just the sort to which uncommitted youths are most poorly adapted, and least likely to commit themselves; and he conscientiously affirms and reaffirms that this is as much society’s fault as theirs. But his mode of analysis prevents him from taking account of how actual changes in our social situation may affect the behavior of the uncommitted, not by altering their character or feelings but by making them an appropriate basis for social action. He attributes to alienated youth a disaffection so deep-seated and chronic as to disable them politically:

Strong in opposition, these young men are weak in affirmation; unable to articulate or even to know what they stand for, they have little sense of self to stand on…But rebels without a cause can only stand against, not for; and even their opposition is diffuse and unspecific. The price they pay for this opposition, a price exacted by all societies (which must refuse sanctioned identity to their opponents), is inner confusion, disunity, and fragmentation. For this reason, if for no other, it is far easier psychologically to be revolutionary with a program than an alienated youth with only a vague set of rejections.

But since this was written, our rebels without a cause have become revolutionaries—though still mostly without a program; they are more nearly anarchists than ideologues. What has changed is not the character structure of the Uncommitted—Keniston’s portrayal of one of these, Inburn, and his confrères at Berkeley still basically resembles the young men of the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam Day Committee, though the Berkeley style and the Harvard style remain very different—but the society. Society was never as monolithic as Keniston rather smugly states; but pluralistic. His statement that “all societies…must refuse sanctioned identity to their opponents” is quite false. The fact is that most functioning societies provide and institutionalize such identity, as we do for conscientious objectors, and by legal recognition of the right to dissent. And, so far, these norms have held up even under considerable pressure. The Uncommitted have been learning how to use them. People, even young people, always have more freedom than they dare to use; but lately, dissenting youth has been shifting into overdrive and risking jail.

Perhaps the most important factor in crystalizing alienated youth into social activists is the simple fact that our society has become morally insufferable. During the period when The Uncommitted was in preparation, the murder of the President and of his putative assassin spread a sense of horror among all of us. The young have seen their country commit, deny, and later boast of the very actions it has most harshly condemned and sought to punish in others: in Cuba, Vietnam, and Santo Domingo. American leadership, throughout this time, has behaved with peculiar duplicity and been caught out with disturbing frequency. The CIA has conspired to overthrow governments in every part of the world by force and violence. An eminent historian who ought, presumably, to have been governed by a historian’s regard for fact in a matter of historical importance, helped conceal the nature of its operation by grossly understanding to The New York Times the size of the Bay of Pigs invasion force. Confronted with this discrepancy a few weeks ago, Mr. Schlesinger is quoted as responding: “Did I say that? Well, I was lying—that was the cover story.” Meanwhile, my fellow sociologists, enthralled by the first six-million-dollar contract sociology had ever seen, went enthusiastically to work for the Army gathering information in various countries to be used in counter-insurgency. They called this “Project Camelot” because “It connotes the right sort of things—development of a stable society with peace and justice for all”* ; “It never seemed to occur to its personnel,” Professor Horowitz reports, “to inquire into the desirability of successful revolution…Furthermore, they seem not to have thought about inquiring into the role of the United States in these countries…The propriety of the Army to define and delimit all questions, which Camelot should have had a right to examine, was never placed in doubt.”

Things have changed. When Keniston’s exemplary, and archly pseudonymous, Inburn was growing up to be alienated, people were still being shocked about Charles Van Doren’s betrayal of the role and dignity of the Professor. One result of this deterioration—and particularly, I should think, of the corruption of academic life by its devotion to our National Purpose—must surely have been to broaden the base of protest among the young, who have a right to expect universities to be devoted to their education. This reduces the relevance of any attempt to explain their disaffection in psychodynamic terms, because people no longer need have very much in common personally to find our present society repugnant enough to arouse protest. Uncommitted youth may have been the first to wither in a social climate in which they perceived that “adulthood means accepting an adult self-definition which entails limitation of awareness, openness, and genuineness; it involves materialism, boring work, being controlled by the demands of others.” But when Adlai Stevenson dropped dead in a London street, it was clear that he was the victim of a plague—an epidemic, not an idiosyncratic disorder. Men cannot go on living as we live, here in Finkistan, whether they would or not. The great irony of Kenneth Keniston’s work is that, in undertaking to explain why some of the young refuse to try, he did not find it more curious that so many more manage to accept our lethal way of life.


Greatly Exaggerated February 3, 1966

Committed Kids February 3, 1966

  1. *

    Irving Louis Horowitz, “The Life and Death of Project Camelot” Transaction 3, 1, Nov./Dec. 1965

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