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The Way We Live Now

III-at-Ease in Compton

by Richard M. Elman
Pantheon, 207 pp., $5.95

The Levittowners

by Herbert J. Gans
Pantheon, 474 pp., $7.95

These must be bad days for historians with literary interests. They, alone among social scientists, cannot hope to participate in the situations and events that engage their attention. The most serious writing about social processes today seems to be by persons who took part in them at least as journalists. Academic writing in the social sciences tends, by comparison, to seem more lifeless than ever. The kind of sociology that carries conviction today is really anthropological; to have any impact the sociologist must function as an ethnographer to the group or institution he is studying.

While scholarly writing in the social sciences is still largely abstract, detached, and statistical, the more competent journalists who write about slum life, or our daily operations in Vietnam, and the schoolteachers who discuss what was actually going on in their schools, have begun to make scholarly detachment look, quite literally, sick—like a nervous disorder whose symptoms include compulsive and ritualized avoidance accompanied by a marked decline in perception. Unfortunately, sociology has not developed to the point where methodological rigor can compensate much for the loss of the impressions it excludes. Both its methods and its laws still seem too artificial, compared to those of the physical sciences, to justify an observer’s unwillingness to allow his pattern of observations to be guided by the events themselves rather than by his scheme of collecting data.

Professor Gans’s work on The Levittowners shows in this respect troubling signs of internal conflict. He is, at fortyone, Senior Research Sociologist at the Center for Urban Education—a regional laboratory of the US Office of Education—and Adjunct Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia. He commands a lucid, casual, unobtrusive prose style. And he chose to study Levittown, New Jersey—the third Levittown to be constructed—as a participant observer from the viewpoint of an ordinary resident.

The Ganses were among the first twenty-five families to move there in 1958. He was thus in a position to supplement his unimpeachable position as a bona-fide charter resident with as much professional procedure as he chose. He chose to use a lot of professional procedure. He told his fellow-residents that he:

was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and…would do a study of the community formation process in Levittown…I did not go into detail about it—I was rarely asked to—and I did not tell people on my block that I was keeping notes on their (and my) activities as homeowners and neighbors. To have done so would have made life unpleasant for them and for me. I disclaimed association with the mail questionnaire or the interviews on behavior change [which he had done by graduate students from the university], fearing (probably unnecessarily) that I might be rejected as a participant-observer. Finally, I did not tell people I had moved to Levittown in order to do the study. Actually, it would not have occurred to them that I was not simply interested in a good low-priced house and the chance to enjoy suburban living.

Aside from these deceptions, being a participant-observer was almost always enjoyable and often exciting. I liked most of the people I met, and had no trouble getting information from them. Identifying myself as a researcher did not inhibit them from talking, but then I asked few personal questions… After a while, I became a fixture in the community; people forgot I was there and went on with their business, even at private political gatherings.

Yet, even if Gans is right—as he probably is—in thinking that his presence as a sociologist did not significantly disturb the social system he was observing the question of impact cannot be dismissed so easily. For his consciousness of his role strongly affected his own behavior:

The main problem in being a participant observer is not to get people to give information, but to live with the role day after day. As a researcher, I could not afford to alienate any present or potential sources, or become identified with any single group or clique in the community. Consequently I had to be neutral, not offering opinions on controversial local issues or on national policies if they were too different from prevailing opinions—as they often were…I also had to restrain the normal temptation to avoid people I did not like, for had I given in, my sample would have been biased and my conclusions inaccurate. The participant observer must talk to a fairly representative cross section of the population. I had to be sure not to act like a professor, for fear of losing access to people who feel threatened by academic degrees or by their own lack of education. This was not too difficult, for I am not entirely comfortable in a professional role anyway.

This passage, I believe, illustrates very clearly the difficulties, for the student of society, of being a sociologist. For comfortable or not, Gans is a professor; and only a professor could have written a passage marked by this particular kind of scrupulosity. He is never more professorial than in his assumption that blandness avoids bias and elicits response. Although he could not have moved in until 1960, when Levittown, driven by court decisions, admitted its first Negro family, Stokely Carmichael might have learned a lot more about the place than Gans did, and learned it faster; though he would have been less likely to comment that he liked most of the people he met. In any case it seems clear that Gans’s professional training and, especially, the habits of mind that went with it made him less effective as a participant observer rather than more: more self-conscious, less spontaneous. Despite his relative candor and genuine good will, it introduced an element of mauvaise foi into his being there that must surely have affected his relationships and thus his observations and conclusions. In return, of course, he got more “hard” data to base his conclusions on than journalists do, in the form of observations and questionnaire responses that can be treated statistically. His book is the only one of the three reviewed here that has tables in it.

His conclusions are important, and probably correct; and it seems unfortunate that they are less convincing than they might have been, because his methodological elaboration makes them so abstract. Gans concludes, on the basis of his study of Levittown, that suburbia in America has been much maligned by writers who have portrayed it as full of anxious, striving, lonely, rootless, and alienated people whose lives, if physically more comfortable, are much emptier than those of city dwellers. Except for adolescents, who have no privacy at all in the predominantly lower-middle-class community where attitudes to youth are fussy and constrictive, and who say “Levittown is Endsville,” most Levittowners like the place, and are contented with their move. Some mind commuting, most don’t; if they work in Philadelphia it takes them, on the average, about as long to get to work as it did when they lived in the city, and the ride is pleasanter. They have more space; and, though there are lots of lonely people, these are mostly, as they would be in the city, people who are very different from their neighbors in religion, education, or social class, and who may be said to have been insufficiently imaginative about what Levittown would be like.

Sociology,” Gans winningly observes, “is a democratic method of inquiry; it assumes that people have some right to be what they are.” On this basis, he suggests, Levittowners are doing pretty well; what they got by moving to Levittown really is, by and large, what they wanted; and who has a right to insist that they should have wanted something nobler?

A STIMULATING LIFE is certainly not what they want. But Gans, while still accepting their right to their own lives, could nevertheless have made that pattern more real to the reader. As Flaubert showed in Madame Bovary, banality may be desperately important and brilliantly portrayed. But the way Gans uses his formally gathered interviews and questionnaires precludes any strongly realized sense of personal participation, on the basis of which his readers might form their own, albeit second-hand, impression of what it might be like to live in Levittown. Gans is generous with details of domestic routines, political meetings, and the like—his account of the handling of the public agenda by frightened, rigid, part-time local officials corroborates and extends Vidich and Bensman’s classic treatment in Small Town in Mass Society. The difficulty is that he continually subordinates his sense of scene to his research. And since the instruments of his research have social norms built into them, they defeat any attempt a reader might wish to make at a qualitative, rather than a comparative, assessment of life in Levittown. He asks questions like, “In a new community, people sometimes feel lonely. How often would you say you feel lonely here: almost every day; a few times a week; a few times a month; about once a month; less often than that?” and “Some people have said that communities like Levittown are pretty dull, without any excitement or interesting things to do. How do you feel about that? Do you agree or disagree?” The result, on the whole, is a clear vindication of Levittown, and a triumph of scholarship over observation. It would be helpful to the student seeking a basis for comparative judgment if Dante had asked such questions as he made his way through Hell; but he had no interview schedule worthy of the name.

Still, even if it isn’t as nice as it looked to Gans, Levittown isn’t Hell. On the basis of Richard Elman’s testimony, I am less certain about Compton. A separately incorporated city of 75,000 people in Los Angeles County, adjacent to Watts and the next place south of it toward Long Beach, it suffers acutely and chronically from the malaise to which an American—indeed, a southern Californian—community, if such it may be called, is subject. Its population has trebled since 1945. In 1961, according to Elman, it was just over 40 percent Negro; now it is more than half. In social and economic level, it is superior to Watts and, like Levittown, predominantly lower-middle class; for many of the Negroes living there it represents a step up to lower-middle class status from the poverty and sporadic violence of Watts. The median family income in both communities would, at the time of writing, have been a little over $7,000 a year. But Levittown is now only about 1 percent Negro, and most of these families, Gans observes, moved in after his study was completed. It is only about a third as big as Compton now, and was less than half its present size during Gans’s study. And it is a young community in every sense, whereas Compton is a trap for old and bitter white people who have lost hope of getting any further. Even for Negroes it isn’t much, though it’s better than Watts; Negroes who have made it in the Los Angeles area live in Baldwin Hills, which is almost like Beverly Hills if you don’t brood about it.

So while Levittown, when Gans studied it, was a new and hopeful community whose inhabitants derived a cozy sense of having got what they wanted from having moved there, most of the people who live in Compton feel stranded there. Elman lived for five weeks in:

The Indian Sycamore Lodge…a small low blockhouse of poured concrete faced with brick and redwood and built around a tiny court which you entered through a redwood gate screened on the inside with bamboo. To the right was the apartment of Noni and her husband, Blake, the managers, who lived cramped together in five small rooms with their six children, all under ten; beyond this, and joined to it, was the wing of motel units, about twelve in all. At five dollars a night, all were invited to “be our guest,” as the sign on the roof advertised; after my first few nights there I discovered that not only was I the only white person on the premises, but I was also the only person who spent the whole night.

The Indian Sycamor was a successful business venture precisely because few of its guests ever stayed longer than three hours, for which Noni was instructed to charge a mere $3.50; and some came and went in less than an hour. Although this constant traffic of shack jobs, prostitutes and their clients, unfaithful husbands and their girl-friends, sailors on leave, prosperous white businessmen and their Negro mistresses, spiffy black hustlers and dyed-blonde housewives, kept Noni up half the night registering them for rooms, changing linens, and mopping bathroom floors, it produced what must have been a substantial profit for the owner, a certain white businessman named Zorax who happened to live in Pasadena.

In order to meet these demands Noni must be either an embittered slattern or a resourceful and tolerant executive with a wry sense of humor. Fortunately, she is the latter. There are other good people and even some good places in Compton:

I also got to know Flores’ Cafe, perhaps the only place in Compton where truly home-cooked meals were served, and I used to like to take lunch at their counter, trying to imitate the weathered old-timers who doused their steaks in salsa and drank steaming hot black coffee as if the insides of their mouths were made of galvanized tin. At Flores’ one can eat a whole meal for under two dollars with a bottle of cold Mexican beer thrown in. Mrs. Flores and her daughter were also two of the most beautiful Mexican women I had ever seen…. I got to love their little homely cafe beside the railroad track, its noises, its smells, the boisterous Mexican students who sat for hours together arguing about soccer or pop music, the old men, Mr. Flores with his carefully patronish, petit bourgeois dignity—so inappropriate to California—and his son, a boy of perhaps thirteen who looked, for all the world, like a fat young prince of the Hapsburgs when he trundled about behind the counter after school in an apron, trying his best to help his mother.

The Anglos in Compton, by and large, are something else again. I would suspect Elman of a rather strong anti-white bias except that the attitudes and behavior of the white citizens of Compton are not at all arbitrary and are fully accounted for by the rather simple psycho-social dynamics he presents. The point is simply that the very presence of Negroes spells failure and desolation to these white people who are mass in Ortega’s precise and blackest sense; they are “all that which places no value on itself, good or ill, based on specific grounds.” Their only possible source of self-esteem lies in achieving a high-plastic standard of living and preserving their social distance from Negroes; and the mere fact that they are still in Compton is daily proof to them that they are failures. Some can’t take it any more. “I used to live in this town,” a man who had returned for a beer in one of his former haunts observed,

…until one day my kids come home with their school pictures, and they were half nigger. How’s a man supposed to have any pride living like that?”

And, saying that, he slumped down against the bar with his face in the cradle of his arms and seemed to go to sleep. Just like that. One minute he was cursing, and the next he was folded up against the bar like a big baby. Then I heard him begin to sob. “You mustn’t mind Ned,” the bartender tried to explain, “he gets very emotional sometimes.”

Go fuck yourself, Barney,” the sleeping man said. There was the sharp rap of a bat. Roseboro had lined out to the third baseman. “If that nigger only knew how to hit to the opposite field,” the man said, raising his head as if in a daze. “He’s got the power.” And again he slumped against the bar.

Mr. Elman is not only an exceptionally perceptive observer, he is a competent and experienced interpeter of the dynamics of discrimination in America, and the author of an earlier work, The Poorhouse State, which must have taught him much that was useful to him in writing about Compton. His book is very fine; but it remains, appropriately, the compassionate but detached observation of an outsider. There have been several of these, some, like Paul Jacobs’s Prelude to Riot, dealing with much the same scene at much the same level of excellence, though of course in a different way. But Mr. Herndon’s The Way It Spozed to Be is in a different class altogether. It is related to The Levittowners and Ill-at-Ease in Compton in that it shows reflected in school routines and in their impact upon Negro children both the complacency, as in Levittown, and the bigotry, as in Compton, of lower-middle-class school personnel. Whether these are white or Negro makes no difference; one of Mr. Herndon’s distinctions is the ease with which he sees Negroes as merely human; the Negro members of the staff of George Washington Junior High School in a Northern California ghetto, are, if anything, a little more artificial and insensitive than their white colleagues.

But Mr. Herndon’s book is much more than either the best reportage or the most constructive sociology could be. It is a cool, crystalline account of the author’s own gradual growth and commitment as a teacher and a man, while, with the subtlest irony, he slowly becomes aware that his own development makes him more and more intolerable to the school and the system in which he must operate. His year ends in his being denied a renewal of his contract by the principal, Mr. Grisson, who candidly and without emotion makes it clear to Herndon that he is being discharged with a personnel evaluation report appraising him as “unfit for the position of junior high school teacher in any school, anywhere, now or in the future.” Meanwhile, there has been no crisis in Herndon’s work; he is, in fact, the one teacher at GW whose classes were not disrupted by the students’ annual spring riot—in which teachers are locked out of classrooms and sometimes struck by angry students, and furniture and supplies are thrown in the street or otherwise destroyed.

THIS SUCCESS, Mr. Grisson tells Herndon, is a large part of the case against him.

A riot meant that some order had been imposed, some control established, since it was against this control that the children were rebelling…. It was right then that I really understood that I was being fired. It hadn’t really occurred to me before. Grissum [as the children and, ultimately, Herndon come to call the principal] wanted me to understand that he knew I had worked hard, that I was serious about what I was doing, that my character, intelligence, and “dedication” weren’t in question. What was?

It seemed a matter of ideas of order. This is a problem school, I do remember his saying. His job, and the job of the teachers, was to make it into something that was no longer a problem school. He was certain that was possible…. No one is perfect, so a teacher may lose control once, twice, a hundred times, but if he believes in that control himself, that order, he will eventually win through.

Herndon’s fate at George Washington Junior High is thus comparable to Jonathan Kozol’s at William Lloyd Garrison. But the two men behaved very differently on the job, and have written very different books. Herndon began with much less social conscience than Kozol did; teaching, at first, was just another job to him, nor had he any particular interest in the plight of the Negro. There are incidents at GW in which teachers and administrators intrude on Herndon’s classroom much as they did on Kozol and, to a lesser degree, on Herbert Kohl; and some of the teachers at GW were characters more bizarre than anything Kohl or Kozol reported:

Old Mrs. Z down the hall…was the real wonder of the school…. She was white haired, apparently frail, and Southern. She told me she had a very simple attitude toward her students which was in fact no different from her feelings about people in general. That was, all her life she’d spoken only to people who were ladies and gentlemen. Since none of the students of 9D were ladies and gentlemen, she never spoke to them, never had, and never would. She also forbade them to speak in her classroom for the same reason. If they did speak she sent them immediately to the office with a note instructing the office to keep them for the period…. She didn’t even speak to them when they were kicked out—just handed them the slip from a ready stack inside her desk…. Above her desk on the wall…she placed her files of ditto masters containing…the whole kit and kaboodle of ninth-grade arithmetic. These she ran off, one a day, handed out the copies one at a time to 9D and her other classes for them to do or not-do, and collected them at the end of the period, done or not-done. All explanation was contained in the ditto. She herself spent the period, between sending out disobedient students, correcting the previous day’s work and noting the non-work, and the ditto was handed back with corrections, a percentage, and a grade. The grade she entered in her own book.

Toward the end of the school year—so natural a period of time—one of Herndon’s students had a miscarriage in Mrs. Z’s class. Her comment, if she finally made one, is not recorded. Despite this, and much, much else that happened, Herndon never blows his cool, never becomes deeply preoccupied by his conflict with his adversary, never becomes sentimental about his charges. He also sees much less academic promise in them than does Kohl; maybe they had less. Even at the end, though he likes his students, he remains detached, though far from neutral, about them.

THE END of this book comes as a shock. For Herndon reveals that the events he had been discussing, which fit so easily into immediate educational concerns, took place eight years ago. Moreover, Grisson has failed to keep him out of the teaching profession, which Herndon had come, calmly, to realize was his own. After a year and a half of odd jobs—some of them substitute teaching—he got a job, despite his bad dossier, in a suburban school where he still teaches. It was new then; it still has very few Negroes. But:

In the short time of six years, the population of the suburb has doubled. Those of the original settlers who could afford it have moved on down the road, onto newly excavated, paved and wired hillsides. The city moved out to replace them. Their replacements were more often working-class, spoke more Spanish, were darker, more occasionally black, had more children, fewer dads, collected more welfare, took achievement tests less well…. We are beginning to look like a real school. (It is a real school, you watermelon-head! I know it’s a real school, but I mean it looks like it is too!)…. Mainly, our ideas of order have changed. There are too many kids for us to know them all personally, so we spend more time filling out and reading forms in order to learn about kids we don’t know. Along with that we express an urge for standardization…. The eccentric desires of 1,200 students are much less tolerable than those of 600…. When I first worked here, you could hear teachers comment, as one man did, If it wasn’t for the kids, I couldn’t stand this job! Now we spend our faculty meetings dreaming up ways to contain an enemy force.

Settling accounts with GW, I guess, just isn’t in the cards.

Yet they might be deemed settled by the involuntary contribution of George Washington Junior High School and its staff to this book, which is the best by far of the current series of books about the public schools—nearly all of which are themselves superior to most of the books about education which preceded them. Mr. Herndon’s work is a superior source of insight for two important reasons that distinguish it even from works as fine as those of Kozol and Kohl: First, it is superb ethnography. The very fact that Mr. Herndon does not approach Negro students as either philanthropist or ideologue makes his pictures of them much more meaningful. These are not nice children, and it is better that those who think they want to help them understand this. Those in the more academic tracks, with more middle-class ways, tend to be even more sycophantic than similar white children. Those who, for whatever apparent unfitness for school, are placed on a lower track—GW had more than a marshalling yard—are very often mean, greedy, suspicious, and crippled by self-hatred.

While these traits are not exactly foreign to white, middle-class children, they are more effectively suppressed; and school routines, standard methods of education, curricular materials, and staff expectations are all geared to middle-class norms. This is a familiar enough fact so that we are not surprised that Herndon’s less academic students should be totally ignorant of the most familiar children’s tales, and value them as literature even as adolescents—they are good stories, and the children are curious about how they come out. But the issue goes deeper. The Three C’s, Herndon’s whitest-looking and most glamorous girl students, adolescent and making the most of it, who have higher status among the other students than anyone else in his class, repeatedly come off badly when the class dramatizes the conventional stories of childhood, even though they direct the play. Cinderella ruins them, and they break up the production in a temper; but the same thing happens repeatedly with other works. For the Three C’s are temperamentally incapable of choosing to be anything less than the princess or the most beautiful girl in any story; and they are unprepared to accept the ressentiment-laden convention which tips middle-class children off that—in fairy-tales at least—this is the mark of a loser. The emotional climax of The Way It Spozed to Be comes when, just after Grisson has fired him, an exhausted Herndon grabs one of his students by the jacket. The boy, struggling to be free, tears the jacket—a major tragedy if you are poor—and in despair and rage scream at his white mentor, “You tore my jacket, you black motherfucker!” At this point, Herndon observes, “It was all too much for me, and I began to laugh.”

But by this point Herndon has developed a set of ad hoc procedures for dealing with his classes that have in fact brought order out of the usual frozen chaos of GW. Of all the current critiques of education now being published, this is the only one—and this is its second point of superiority—that would be very useful to a teacher trying to get practical suggestions. Nothing could be less like a methods textbook than The Way It Spozed to Be, but Herndon’s perception of his students is so fresh, and his matter-of-fact acceptance of them so unconditional, that he is able to figure out what to do. They begin to use the school library, to the acute distress of the school librarian. They schedule Friday as Movie Day, which becomes a kind of party, with forbidden soft-drinks and snacks, which the students organize for themselves and which they control very well—though not in accordance with school norms—meanwhile welding themselves into a social unit and viewing, with a critical eye, all the instructional films they can get their hands on, regardless of what class the film is meant for. They like science best, though they are squeamish and upset by shots showing blood or bacteria—odd, I should think, in TV watchers, but they are. Herndon notices that their “slam books,” which are a home-made, unique, and rather more hostile kind of class yearbook with comments—not all nasty—about their classmates, are carefully made, and correctly if not poetically written and spelled—unlike anything else these pupils, many of whom at the beginning of the school year could not read their own names, wrote. So he lets them work on these in class; though the rule at GW is to confiscate the books.

In this way he succeeds, and comes to recognize himself, as a teacher. But simultaneously he recognizes that his achievement is totally illicit; it is just what Grisson and his staff are there to forestall. Children, as Herndon points out in a moving passage, are quite good at working out their own basis for group-order; though it is in the process of doing so that they often look most disorderly to adults. But self-ordering is the basis of autonomy; and autonomy is not to be permitted. There is, the book strongly implies, just no way he could have managed, for the hidden agenda of the schools completely contradicts their professed aims. Since only a genius, a divine fool, or a “natural” is likely to come close to achieving those aims under the conditions that exist, the conflict rarely becomes open. But when a teacher does, as Kozol, Kohl, and Herndon—I judge in ascending order—have all done, he is extruded. And this is only one of the ways white, middle-class America, with some help from the better socialized Negroes, writes sorrow on the bosom of the earth, then tells sad stories of the death of Kings. Someday, perhaps, they may be ill-at-ease about this even in Levittown.

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