All three of these works have, as their subject, certain aspects of the life—of the very different lives—of young people today; mostly in America, though there are glimpses of Jamaica in Mr. Reeves’s book and some cross-cultural observation, chiefly in a paper by Joseph Douvan, “The Political Imagination of the Young Adolescent,” included in the Daedalus volume. Although many readers have wearied of thinking about the lives of the young, it must nevertheless be conceded that the topic retains an intrinsic importance, if the future is to have any at all. What Samuel Johnson once said of the city of London is even truer of the young: to be tired of them is to be tired of life. Messrs. Reeves, Bhaerman, and Denker clearly do not find themselves in this condition; about half the contributors to the Daedalus volume write as if they do.
As life is divided into stages in America, early adolescence is an important period. Yet the most important message these three works, taken together, convey has nothing to do with adolescence as such, but rather, with the much broader question of the relation of academic scholarship to knowledge and understanding of social and psychological processes. Most of the Daedalus issue is comprised of formal papers detailing the findings of properly conducted empirical investigations. But the last eighty pages of the book have been allotted to three more subjective chapters, as a kind of epilogue to the more respectable materials preceding them. The presence of these papers establishes that the editors of Daedalus indeed can, under circumstances that they deem fitting, admit into the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—which is what Daedalus is; the Proceedings have been published in this form since 1958—subjective reflections upon individual experience similar in kind to those that fill the pages of Notes of a Processed Brother and No Particular Place To Go.
Notes of a Processed Brother is an irresistible book: a sprightly, straightforward, true tale of romance and adventure and of the tempering of youth by the bittersweet mixed experience of betrayal and inner triumph. It is also, despite the familiarity of the genre, a unique book. There is surely no other in which the hero-narrator is a black man now just twenty years old, whose trials of courage, devotion, and chivalry occurred in a New York City public high school, and who was, at the outset, not a rebel but a straight citizen and athlete (track). Much of the book recounts the frustrations that Reeves encountered and the attacks upon his character that he survived as president of the citywide general organization of New York City high-school students, which serves as a pretext for student government.
His crafty and treacherous foes are high-school administrators and, subsequently, members of the Board of Education and its bureaucracy. The beautiful maiden whose demands sap his strength and his love, and who ultimately abandons him cruelly and publicly, is no Carmen but a middle-class Jewish girl from the more suburban part of Queens who follows student leaders and wants the titillation of a black lover and the satisfaction of keeping her parents in a frenzy, but has no thought, as Reeves does, of marriage.
No victory awaits him. On April 15, 1970, during the antiwar Mobilization Rally in Bryant Park, where the eighteen-year-old Reeves is scheduled to call a strike of 275,000 New York City high-school students demanding a real voice in their schooling, angrier and more militant demonstrators intent on other causes tear the podium down as soon as William Kunstler has finished speaking from it and before Reeves’s turn has come. The strike never really gets under way. Reeves himself has to confront the principal of his own high school with his attorney and a threat of legal action to get the school—New York’s celebrated and presumably freedom-loving High School of Music and Art—to concede that he has fulfilled the requirements for a diploma and graduate him.
Banal and familiar materials from which to make a fresh narrative, one might say; but the attempt is entirely successful. Mr. Reeves’s tone does a great deal to make it so. He writes without an ounce of self-pity—an emotion that many older black writers now feel free to push by the ki. His black identity seems so secure that he need not strive to achieve it or force it on the public—a fact which continually enraged his black fellow students at Music and Art who were, by and large, unable to tolerate his choice of a white girl instead of a sister as a lover. His writing, therefore, sounds a truly objective note, free of rhetoric and posture, which is essential to his effectiveness since he very freely identifies the individual protagonists in his narrative.
One of the more refreshing experiences it provides is that of seeing through a student’s eyes familiar figures in educational controversy in New York City, like Albert Shanker, Joseph Monserrat (then president of the Board of Education), and Seymour P. Lachman, a liberal member of the board who had much to do with compiling (Reeves calls him its author) a rather toothless resolution on “Rights and Responsibilities for Senior High School Students” which the Board of Education adopted, while refusing even to authorize a process by which students might draw up a binding bill of rights for themselves. There are also one or two good guys, like Aryeh Neier of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and shrewd glimpses of the air-borne panel and conference circuit which included Mr. Reeves during the time that his struggle with the New York City Board of Education made him a celebrity in the field of urban-racial school conflict. Mr. Reeves’s view of all these people is not very different from that of most others who have given an account of them, but this in itself is a salutary lesson to those who may still believe it is easy for adults to fool the young.
While Mr. Reeves was actively learning by doing in the New York City school system, Mr. Bhaerman and Mr. Denker were conducting the New Educational Project in Washington, D.C.: a “free” high school that at one point in its two-year history required three centers in widely separated buildings around the Washington area to house its students and their manifold activities. Bhaerman and Denker are a few years older than Mr. Reeves. They were sent to teach in high schools in Washington and its suburb, Silver Springs, in autumn, 1967, by the Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education—probably the best and most interesting program of teacher education in America, though neither Bhaerman nor Denker is very enthusiastic about it.
Both were disappointed to find themselves assigned to elite high schools, equally bourgeois though one had a predominantly black, the other a predominantly white, student body. Their discontent with their lives in these very similar posts led them into an informal group of young activist educators, who decided to found their own free high school. No Particular Place To Go is a simple and moving account of the things that happened and the people they met—a short book, six chapters, written alternately by each author, which gives their account the added depth that binocular vision from viewpoints similar but not quite identical provides.
There is nothing especially unusual in the brief history of the New Educational Project. As in Mr. Reeves’s book, the hassles are familiar: housing problems, rip-offs, harassment by municipal inspectors and police—intensified beyond what most free schools experience, since the New Educational Project ran communes in which many of its young students lived and many of their friends and acquaintances and a few urban drifters as well crashed. In its strengths, too, No Particular Place To Go resembles Notes of a Processed Brother. Though warmer and more reflective—it is the work of older, more experienced men—the book is equally unsentimental. What comes through with clarity in both works is the inescapable daily grind, grime, and anxiety, and the intense sense of being involved with something that matters that commitment to educational reform brings to those still young enough to believe change to be possible.
There are few similarities in the content of the two books. Reeves like Laocoön fought his battles within the clutches of the New York City school system; Bhaerman and Denker repudiated the schools to start a very different kind of place for early adolescents. Yet, though their problems and the events in which they become involved are totally different, all three learned a few identical basic truths that committed radicals must come to accept, and that seldom emerge as distinctly as they do from the pages of these books.
All three young men appear to have been astonished that so large a proportion of their difficulties should have arisen from the actions—and occasionally the malice—of members of their own group, people they thought were on their side, committed to the same goals. Mr. Reeves is constantly troubled by the racism of other young blacks who sneer at and occasionally insult his white girlfriend and put him down, keeping him constantly under threat of impeachment from his sandbox student office, for being such a Tom as to fall in love with a white girl.
As he becomes a real, if ephemeral, force in New York City school politics and gains recognition and some actual power, the rancor of his fellow students at Music and Art becomes more and more intense and strident; they insist that he is only seeking publicity for himself and dominance over them. Despite the limitations imposed by its high-school scene, Notes of a Processed Brother is a valuable study of the role of ressentiment in political action, though Reeves never uses the word. Hardly anyone ever helps a winner, especially among the poor and downtrodden, especially if he is fighting their cause.
Bhaerman and Denker are very much hampered by the same, unanticipated phenomenon, though in their communes it takes a different form. The kids, eager to escape from their parents, almost immediately transfer to the older people in the New Educational Project the same attitudes they held toward their parents. The result is a fairly rapid development of daily chaos. The houses become filthy; dishes pile up unwashed; rooms are abandoned because of an overpowering stench of cat shit, because the young people who brought the cat to live with them refuse to accept any special responsibility for cleaning up after it. Formal classes, which the students themselves set up in their areas of interest, soon come to be received as apathetically as they were in public school, attendance falls off, they are often gradually abandoned. No consistent policy about the use of pot and hash can be adopted, let alone enforced; there is a constant fear of busts.
What this reflects, as Bhaerman and Denker make clear, is not anything so simple as “immaturity” or “irresponsibility.” It is rather that many of the people involved in the project, whether students or staff—the distinction is blurred as much as possible, according to the ideology of communal life—have fallen into the most grievous moral state the Talmud can envision. They are no longer capable of being on their own side, or of trusting anybody else who is. Not just the Talmud, either; this, presumably, is what acedia means, and why it is one of the seven mortal sins. Sloth is malicious; its object, the self and its allies.
Reeves, Bhaerman, and Denker all realize this; but their books are nevertheless joyous and even, in a way, triumphant. They do not blame their associates for the pettiness and greed or power-seeking that ultimately terminated their enterprises; instead, they see their own failure to anticipate this as an ego trip—the only part of their action which might legitimately be called that. There is something grandiose and disrespectful to one’s beneficiaries in the savior role. Crucifixion is perhaps a cruel and unusual punishment to exact for the offense; but one way or another prophets who see further than their peers and try to place their vision at the disposal of their constituents are probably going to get ripped off. What sustained these young authors through their growing and disconcerting tribulations was nothing so grandiose as a dedicated vision, but their dawning sense that they had learned more about themselves and the real nature of their goals than they could possibly have expected. The journey not the arrival matters.
Reeves, Bhaerman, and Denker are interested primarily in giving an account of their own experiences; but their accounts emerge as genuine contributions to the ethnography of adolescence. Their data come from the best kind of participant observation, in which the participation is directed toward real goals in complex and difficult institutional settings. Their young colleagues, and themselves as young, are the subject of their interest.
Early adolescence, however, is the object of investigation of the scholars who contributed the nine conventional papers of the twelve that are included in the Daedalus volume “Twelve to Sixteen: Early Adolescence.” The fruits of subjective interest are as different from the product of objective investigation as are the conventions that govern the two—a difference superbly suggested by the only photographs included in the Daedalus book. These are a set of photographs of three naked boys “aged 14.75 years” and three naked girls “aged 12.75 years,” illustrating the wide range of sexual development to be found among adolescents of exactly the same age. Since photographs used for this purpose must show the genitalia plainly, the faces, as is customary in technical monographs, have been blanked out, to preserve the anonymity of these six young men and women; or at least ensure that they will be recognized only by their closest friends.
I have been familiar with this convention since my own student days, thirty years ago, and do not recall ever having questioned it. Only in the process of writing this review has it occurred to me that the convention does more than protect the privacy of these research subjects: it depersonalizes them; that is its intention. The children are being used as abstractions; all that may be considered is their age—the independent variable—and their pattern of primary and secondary sexual characteristics—the dependent variable. This is the setting in which an understanding of early adolescence as a phenomenon, or set of phenomena, is sought. Depersonalization, for the purpose of making the most general statement that will still be valid, is one of the ground rules for objective inquiry; and it reduces what you learn to so little that it can hardly be of help in understanding any real person in a real human predicament.
One can hardly read these Daedalus papers—all but the last three—without feeling that what is operating here is not just “scientific method” but an aversion to human reality—which may, of course, be one of the basic constituents of scientific detachment, too. What else can one conclude from a sentence discussing values of adolescents in a paper called “Social Characteristics of Early Adolescence” which states: “While the value priorities found by Coleman in 1957 have doubtless altered in recent years as counterculture norms have spread, it is quite probable that newer evidence would still document the continuation of cultural emphasis on value-theme dispositions established in the oedipal period”? Nobody could write in this way about anything that had any reality for him. Or this passage from an essay entitled “The Child Analyst Looks at the Young Adolescent,” by Peter Blos, one of the elder statesmen of adolescent psychiatry:
During adolescence the child passes, gradually but persistently, from the highly personal family envelope to the eminently impersonal societal envelope. In this transition we witness the steady arousal of affective responses to social, moral, and spiritual issues. Should this response remain a direct displacement from childhood idealizations or grievances, then, and only then, can we speak of a miscarriage of psychic restructuring. Then we can say that the shadow of renewed childhood rage and blame has fallen on the environment.
There certainly is a lot of stuff falling on the environment these days, much of it similar in texture and brilliance to the passage quoted. It isn’t just that the writing is bad, but that it is bad in a frightening and disheartening way, because it is a part of what an eminent scholar sees when he “Looks at the Young Adolescent”—and in 1971, when there has been so much pain and bewilderment and ecstasy to be seen. You can’t write that way about something you really care about and know about—not unless you are sealed in an “eminently impersonal societal envelope” yourself. For sheer pithiness, though, this statement does not quite equal John Janeway Conger’s observation in his paper, “A World They Never Knew: The Family and Social Change”:
There can be little doubt that the present century has been one of fundamental, in some respects even radical change for our society. Increasing urbanization and geographic mobility have been altering the face of the country and the nature of its social institutions, including the family, at a rather astonishing rate.
I quote this not simply to ridicule; clichés of this sort convey, I believe, a sinister contempt for and exploitation of one’s subject matter.
As they view their early adolescent subjects several of the contributors to this issue of Daedalus are afflicted, I think, with a kind of ethnocentrism which emerges in such comments as Conger’s further observation:
The “now” generation looks…for meaning in seeming meaninglessness—“happenings,” elaborate “put-ons” in dress and manner, distortions of “reality” in light shows and movies, the current preoccupation with astrology, and in some older adolescents, with Eastern religions.
A lot of these kids, in their inability to tell what has meaning and what is meaningless, are no better than a bunch of fucking Buddhists.
Even the abler contributors are hampered, or hamper themselves, by the same aversion—always justified in the name of methodology—for the world in which the people they are studying are engaged; and the ethnocentrism, or at least a bit of unstated imperial bias, creeps in too. Joseph Adelson’s paper, “The Political Imagination of the Young Adolescent,” reports an interesting piece of research with some important findings which suggest very strongly that in all societies early adolescents tend to be rigid and punitive in their political attitudes—real little fascists—without regard to the society in which they live. Adelson also reports some provocative findings on national character in American, British, and West German youth. But consider the assumptions underlying this introductory paragraph:
Our aim was to discover how adolescents of different ages and circumstances construe the world of political action, and how they organize a political philosophy. Our early, informal interviewing had suggested that it would be best to avoid talking to our youngsters about current political realities. To do so would obviously make it difficult to compare children in different cultures, but beyond that we found that to do so risked being misled about the child’s grasp of the political. The younger adolescent may be intimidated by his lack of “knowledge,” while the older adolescent may glory in his possession of it. In either case both child and interviewer may become so mesmerized by the pursuit of facts and opinions that the quality of the child’s thought may be obscured. At any rate we settled upon an interview format which offered the following premise: imagine that a thousand people venture to an island in the Pacific to form a new society; once there they must compose a political order, devise a legal system, and in general confront the myriad problems of government.
By far the best written paper among the nine academic contributions is David Bakan’s “Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact,” which is also the most sophisticated socially and politically. Professor Bakan trenchantly examines the history of compulsory education, child labor laws, and the juvenile court system, which led to the definition of adolescence as a social category. He notes, ironically, the absence from both civics courses in schools and courses in school law for administrators of material dealing with the rights and protection of juveniles from arbitrary misuses of authority. Bakan’s paper is more likely than any of the other research-based papers in the volume to point out to its readers something they may not have thought about, and to do so in such a way as to promote some change of attitude. Most of the other papers, however, unfortunately demand that the reader behave in the way Jerome Kagan praises the early adolescent for being able to do in his essay “A Conception of Early Adolescence”:
During the few years prior to puberty the child is gradually acquiring several new and profoundly intellective capacities. First, he gains an ease in dealing with hypothetical premises that may violate reality. The twelve-year-old will accept and think about the following problem: “All three legged snakes are purple, I am hiding a three legged snake, guess its color.”
The last three essays are something else again. Robert Coles’s “The Weather of the Years” is not a generalization from data, but one of Coles’s mysterious and haunting evocations of the world of the young—in this case a black child in New Orleans whom he knew through the years that she grew into adolescence—illuminated by his sparse, penetrating comments. There is no point in saying anything more about Coles; he has simply got possession of Alice’s bottle, with the new formula that lets you change sex and color as well as size, and moves back and forth between childhood and Harvard at will.
Phyllis LaFarge’s essay, “An Uptight Adolescence,” is the most valuable thing in the book. She is a professional writer, and it shows. Moreover, her topic is one of the least explored aspects of adolescence in the literature: girlhood, upper-middle class girlhood, in places like the Spence School and the ballroom of the Plaza. Her memoir is vivid, calm, and in places deep; at least as real and as “relevant” as the observations by Reeves, Bhaerman, and Denker.
Concerning the final paper in the Daedalus book, Thomas J. Cottle’s long, brilliant piece, “The Connections of Adolescence,” I have a few reservations. In saying this I am, of course, criticizing it on a different and more exacting scale of values than could be applied to the first nine papers.
Cottle, like several of the contributors to the volume, is concerned with the effect on adolescents of the fragmentation of the world they live in, as compared to the apparent solidity of the one he grew up in, where the social forces came from predictable directions and pushed the young, however painfully, in the direction they expected to move. He writes about adolescence, including his own, with as much grace, wit, and perception as anyone writing. He is as concretely frank about his own experiences as Philip Roth was about those of Alexander Portnoy. And it all connects. Nobody is any better at describing what the young do, how they think and feel and express themselves. This is demonstrated even more forcefully in Cottle’s recent book Time’s Children,1 which of course gives him more scope than this paper does.
Yet, when it becomes necessary to interpret what has been told, the same distressing thing happens in both works, difficult to describe, but frightening, like the onset of a bad acid trip. The prose retains its style but loses its clarity and concreteness. Empathy becomes piety, events observed slip from their causal contexts. So, I should imagine, might a very astute Southern Negro of the 1920s have spoken of the shameful murder of one of his own people by whites if he had had the misfortune to witness it: the victim sharply observed and recalled in the full vigor of his life, and deeply and justly mourned—his jokes and ribaldry recalled, too, with joy as well as sadness. But the attack itself, and the social circumstances surrounding it—what’s a poor sinner to say?
Mr. Cottle, so far, belongs among that select company of American heroes who come to understand the evils of their world—so fully that they can never undertake to help fix the blame for them. Their noble graves are marked by an eternal flame, which they can easily afford to provide from the inexhaustible supply thenceforth available to them forever. But it will not do; the witness must ultimately testify to what actually occurred and who was there and did what. If he is qualified as an expert witness, he must even venture to say why.
Mr. Reeves does this in Notes of a Processed Brother. The little band of brothers who were the New York City Board of Education in 1970 would by now be lost to history but for him. The reader who wishes to invest in only one of these works should buy this one.
May 4, 1972