The Good Old Days

Facing Life: Youth and the Family in American History

by Oscar Handlin and Mary F. Handlin
Atlantic-Little Brown, 326 pp., $7.95

The Handlins’ new book can best be described as a rather ill-tempered polemic against the “troublemakers” of the Sixties, preceded by a 257-page historical introduction. The historical sections of the work are only tenuously related to the attack on student radicalism; indeed, they sometimes tend to undermine it.

What the Handlins think of student protest is already familiar to readers of Commentary and The Atlantic. Student radicals, in their view, are “rebels without a cause,” pampered children of affluence. They have been spoiled by permissive parents and indulged in their wanton assault on the university by teachers trying to recapture their youth. Today’s children have never known the meaning of a hard day’s work. “Accustomed through youth to the immediate gratification of all demands, they had never learned the need for deferment of any desire.” Since they are bent on “pure destructiveness,” it is evidently unnecessary for their adversaries to reflect on the ostensible issues of their protest—Vietnam, racism, the state of higher education.

This attack on the student radicalism of the Sixties seems to imply among other things the existence of a former golden age, when academic life was untroubled by unruly students or low academic standards, which according to the Handlins have now reached the point of collapse. Yet the historical sections of Facing Life, sketchy as they are in many places, show that American colleges in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries endured chronic student disorders. They suggest, moreover—although the Handlins might object to this interpretation of their chapter on the period between 1870 and 1930—that if these disorders abated somewhat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not because the university had finally become a genuine community of scholars but because fraternities, athletics, and other outlets of this kind played an increasingly prominent part in student life.

In the course of their polemic against student activism, an outburst doubtless provoked in part by recent events at Harvard, the Handlins evoke the memory of an earlier Harvard. Charles William Eliot, they claim, transformed “a boys’ institution of clerical antecedents into a center of scholarship the influence of which would radiate throughout the whole culture.” In recent years what has seemed notably to radiate from Harvard is a certain high-handed approach to foreign policy, based on heady visions of American world power, contempt for the electorate, and school-masterish disdain for critics of American actions abroad, who are given “low marks” by such paragons of humane learning as McGeorge Bundy.

But this is no doubt the misguided perception of an outsider. The point is that the Handlins’ account of Eliot’s major reform—introduction of the elective system—suggests that whatever scholarly achievements it made possible were paid for by sacrificing the possibility of an intellectually coherent undergraduate curriculum and by chopping up the body of knowledge into meaningless fragments, called “departments.”

The Handlins observe that the elective system represented a compromise between the demands of the undergraduate college and the research-oriented graduate and professional schools that were being…

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