Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth
The Academic Revolution
A specter of revolution haunts the land. Or, rather, a congregation of revolutionary specters. For it is a major problem simply to sort them out and then, when possible, to relate them to one another. There seems to be general agreement that the working classes at least are out of it; their conservative unions, for example, belong as firmly to the established order as Hubert Humphrey, and for the same reason. To this extent, certainly, Marx must be updated by anyone who still finds him relevant. One major revolt (we may as well begin by distinguishing revolts, which are, as the term implies, active and intentional, from revolutions, which, in their loose common usage, may not be) is that of the Black Power movement. Like the revolt of individuals involved in the resistance against the war in Vietnam, it concerns us here tangentially: in so far, that is, as it relates to the student-young faculty revolts now occurring at great universities here and abroad. However all these revolts, in one way or another, are a part of the sophisticated scientific-technological “revolution” which has converted the university into the indispensible feeder institution to the immensely rich and powerful post-industrial national society of which Daniel Bell and Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others, are exponents. The latter revolution, in turn, was made possible by the products of the “academic revolution” which preoccupy Professors Jencks and Riesman in their new book, The Academic Revolution: the revolution, this is, initiated in the last decades of the nineteenth century, which transformed the old sectarian liberal arts and land-grant colleges into modern “graduate school universities.”
As it turns out, Professor Brzezinski has lately published in The New Republic an essay—or a position paper—“Revolution and Counter Revolution” which, despite the ironical disclaimer in its parenthetical sub-title “(But Not Necessarily about Columbia)” directly forces upon us the central issues which, I believe, connect these revolts and revolutions. Accordingly it helps to bring into common focus both the problems which concern Jencks and Riesman and those discussed in Professor Kenneth Keniston’s book, Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth. The relevance of Brzezinski’s piece owes much to the fact that its author is at once a major prophet of the new epoch, which he calls the “technetronic society,” an acute typologist of revolutions and counter- or pseudo-revolutions, and a harshly realistic strategist for establishmentarians. In Brzezinski’s view, the future belongs to those who have mastered the scientific-technological and administrative methods and tools upon which the governance of the technetronic society depends. It is not, I think, incorrect to describe him and his allies as benevolent elitists, for whom “participatory democracy,” as young radicals now call it, must recall the Brook Farm experiment, itself the gesture of an archaistic American dream of an era that had already disappeared by the middle of the nineteenth century. These academicians accept as a fact that democracy in our time is not really a major issue, and they prefer not to discuss it. Opposed to ideologies of all sorts, they also do not explicitly repudiate the values and ideals of liberal education, even as reinterpreted by the apologists for our great multiversities. Rather do they prefer to let dead issues bury themselves in the academic committees and reports in which the futile ideologues of by-gone traditions fritter away their energies. The technetronic academicians, meanwhile, collect their grant money, do their research, and ply their way back and forth between Logan, La Guardia, or San Francisco airports and Dulles Airport in Washington.
SO MUCH for the prophecy. Now for the typology and the strategies of revolutions and counter-revolutions that don’t necessarily apply to the situation on Morningside Heights. True revolutions, such as the industrial revolution and the revolution now producing the technetronic society, according to Brzezinski must always be genuine “responses to the future.” In many instances such revolutions are already being carried out more or less adequately by existing institutions—which in the present situation of course includes the great graduate school universities described by Jencks and Riesman. But institutions such as the contemporary university are not always entirely adequate to their occasions. Significant revolts may occur which, however intended, may be taken to be implicit efforts to remove existing forms of institutional obsolescence. Such revolts are properly handled by the established authorities first by immediate isolation of the rebels through effective violence, and then by appropriate reforms that automatically take any remaining wind out of the shredded flags of the rebellion. Thus such revolts, properly handled, may implicitly serve the true revolution.
On the other hand, Brzezinski tells us, counter-revolutions such as the peasant revolts that occurred during the transition from feudal agrarian societies to modern industrial ones (as we can now see) are “responses to the past,” and hence lacking both in historically significant ideological content and sustained power. Their “violence and revolutionary slogans,” as Brzezinski puts it, “are merely—and sadly—the death rattle of the historical irrelevants.” The only question, as it applies to the current student-faculty revolts, is, of course, whether, or how far, they are merely counter-revolutionary reactions by expendable misfits to academic life in a post-industrial age or evidence of a genuine need for institutional reforms that must be made if the universities are themselves to respond adequately to the demands of the new technetronic society.
IT IS NO ACCIDENT that Brzezinski fails to tell us what to do about counter-revolutionaries—for (one may argue) only after the fact can it be known for sure who really represents the wave of the future. Presumably competent authorities, who can tell an old dog from a young one, will throw the old dog a bone, and then get back to work. But there is another way of interpreting Brzezinski’s point of view: just as establishments which manage to put down true revolutions are bound to fail in another way since they must institute reforms roughly equivalent to the aims of the revolutionists, so counter-revolutionists who succeed must fail in the end since they will have to do the work of the establishment in order to survive. Either way the significant outcome is much the same.
Applied to the present situation in the universities Brzezinski’s argument might go like this: the wave of the future lies with the sciences, the forms of research, teaching, and academic organization that serve the technetronic society. No doubt the existing establishment does not fully understand this and on the whole is not doing its job very effectively. In any case, fracases of the sort that recently occurred at Columbia are properly to be viewed as latter-day peasant counter-revolutions. In short, the noise we hear is merely the death rattle of a historically irrelevant part of the academic “community”: that is, students and faculty who, for one reason or another, have been unable to adjust to the forms of life essential to the university in the technetronic age. No doubt they will have to be put down, but then, one hopes, as gently and quietly as possible, and with no fret about the outcome. On the other hand, to the extent that the revolutionists’ grievances indicate malfunctionings that must be removed if the technetronic university is to do its work, then the authorities, again having put the fires out, are bound immediately to institute the necessary institutional reforms.
Only two things are wrong with this (highly schematic) argument, but they are fatal to it. For one thing, the argument assumes in advance that the revolting students and their allies among the teaching fellows and professors are latter-day “peasants,” unable to make the required intellectual and social adjustments to academic life in the new era. This is an error, as we shall soon see: many revolters are first-rate students who well understand the advanced methods of scientific technocracy; they and their older sympathizers in fact include some of the most sophisticated minds to be found anywhere on university campuses: that is, not merely dull-witted English majors and historians but mathematicians, logicians, linguists, advanced students of computer science and game theory. If this gentry is, in the current vernacular, about to opt out of the multiversity, it knows whereof it opts. More importantly, this very fact suggests that within the technetronic society there are already emerging deep-lying contradictions that, understandably, first appear in society’s indispensible educational institution. However out-moded are the specifics of Marx’s analysis of nineteenth-century capitalist-industrial societies, it may be true that the more advanced social systems of our own era may well be caught up in unprecedented dialectical conflicts of their own that threaten their internal stability. Societies consist not of classes and institutions only, but of the human beings who give them substance: if institutions systematically frustrate the needs and aspirations of considerable numbers of their ablest and most valuable functionaries, then a quasi-Marxian analysis may still be appropriate. To my knowledge, no one has disproved such a possibility in the circumstances that concern us here. Indeed its reality appears to be confirmed, almost against their author’s wills, by the works here under review. The fact is all the more arresting since the angles from which they conduct their investigations are so divergent.
AS HE IS AT PAINS to make clear, Professor Keniston is neither a young radical himself nor even a professorial fellow-traveler. He is, at most, a well-disposed diagnostician. It is nonetheless fascinating to find a youngish professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale Medical School, whose academic credentials are impeccable, bearing witness, almost against his will, to the fact that the attitudes of many young radicals are evidences not of counter-revolutionary obsolescence and maladjustment, but of a highly developed sense of moral responsibility, a compassion, a maturity and openness of spirit that contrast sharply with the falseness, inconsistency, and in the end always violent “realism” of academic authorities who sometimes forget what it means, in Keniston’s homely phrase, “to help people be people.”
Keniston has his limitations, but lack of modesty is not one of them. He has made it his business to learn, within his limits, whereof he speaks. His book is the product of a study of a number of students who worked from June to September in 1967 for Vietnam Summer, an organization of young radicals opposed to our military adventures in Southeast Asia. By stages he was made acutely aware of the connections between the young radicals’ opposition to the Vietnam War, their sympathy for radical movements among black irreconcilables, and their mounting indignation at the arid forms of life offered them and their fellows on the “best” American campuses. In short, Keniston has come to understand (though not, I think, in full depth) how far so-called young radicals in America are alienated from that presumptive future which our national society professes to hold open both for its own citizens and for victims in “underdeveloped” areas of the world.