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…

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