The Radical Students

The Conflict of Generations: The Character and Significance of Student Movements

by Lewis S. Feuer
Basic Books, 534 pp., $12.50

Overlive: Power, Poverty, and the University

by William M. Birenbaum
Delacorte, 195 pp., $4.95

University in Turmoil: The Politics of Change

by Immanuel Wallerstein
Atheneum, 147 pp., $4.95

Innumerable essays and books on the university crisis, the generation gap, and the significance of the student Left appear to have settled very little. Public anxiety has fastened upon these themes as a unitary threat or promise calling for a general position of resistance or welcome. Often the first casualty is logic. The distribution of power within universities is discussed as a conflict between strict and permissive rearing patterns, and tactical matters get confused with taking sides for or against a whole generation. No rhetorical strategies are spared to prove that we should or shouldn’t allow ourselves to be guided by the superior idealism or utter depravity of the young.

No one who writes according to such formulas can be very helpful, but by far the worst record has been compiled by renowned liberals attempting to stave off the ideas of student radicals with improvised theories condemning or belittling them. Thus Louis Halle derives campus disorders from he currents of “nihilistic” thought (Freud, Lorenz, et al.) that have been delaying Man’s self-improvement for the past century or so. In his view “the student drive to destruction” is so patent that no evidence of it need be presented; the only problem is to decide which books and teachings are to blame. George Kennan adopts a tone of weepy hauteur as he contemplates the “defiant rags and hairdos” of “perverted and willful and stony-hearted youth.” He too prefers to skip over the manifest disputes and get directly to the heart of the matter: bad taste, bad manners, lax upbringing, and want of respect for the Wilsonian concept of the university, “its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith.”

Jacques Barzun, after documenting many of the Left charges against multiversities, suggests that student protest may spring from the teaching of misanthropic modern art. Student activists “are but acting out in life what their parents pay good money to see acted on the stage.” Irving Howe proposes that “the very idea of commandment and regulation,” after 150 years of skeptical assault, has finally dissolved and given way to “a psychology of unobstructed need.” (So much for the “socialist” perspective.) And Diana Trilling, who sees her husband’s university as a “white island, constantly shrinking” before “the meaner streets of the vicinity,” declares that the flouting of parental authority these days is simply inexplicable: “does it not almost amount to a mutation in the species?” All would agree with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who does offer definite reasons for the activists’ mood but finally insists that the struggle is being waged between “social process” on one hand and “anarchy” on the other.

These efforts to drown the student movement in generalities deserve some explanation themselves. The announced aims of student radicals are threatening to many professors who are temperamentally loyal to that mixture of formalism, discretion, and indifference known as the academic process. Their personal niche needn’t be directly jeopardized for them to feel perturbed by attacks against the more …

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Letters

Complaint June 5, 1969