Time's Children: Impressions of Youth
reviewed by Edgar Z. Friedenberg - 1972
Thomas J. Cottle's new book is one of the best of a number of recent works that undertake a more sympathetic examination of the lives, experiences, attitudes, and values of the social group commonly called Middle Americans who, according to the scholars now writing about them, have been neglected in the social thought of the past several decades, which has concentrated instead on the truly poor and, especially, the Black American. Correspondingly if not consequently, Middle Americans have been neglected in the formation of social policy as well, and have become steadily more embittered as they find their hard-won and precariously held status threatened by society's inequitable solicitude for their rapidly encroaching lower-class neighbors. Mounting rage pushes them further and further toward the political right, destroying the consensus needed to make government legitimate or perhaps even possible.
Since the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964, to choose a convenient if somewhat arbitrary date, Middle America's favorite target has been the increasingly large portion of American youth, usually from higher-status families, who reject or abandon—however peaceably— mainstream American values and lifestyle. For Middle Americans, there is indeed a youth problem, bitter, severe, and emblematic of all that is most frustrating to the marginally successful in American life. It is, therefore, both understandable and appropriate that an author writing about the young in America in 1971 should be concerned with the political attitudes of the entire spectrum of American youth, redressing the emphasis that has been placed on dissenting campus activists. It is likewise reasonable that Time's Children should tell us more about the social institutions that deal with the young in America (usually as captives and more often than not with deep mistrust and intense and consistent, though usually covert, hostility) than it does about the young themselves. For the institutions by which young Americans are molded and through which they are channeled—the family and the school—constitute the very guts of Middle America; and those whom the system cannot easily assimilate are treated about as the metaphor would lead one to expect.
Time's Children includes some excellent observations of working-class adolescents in informal discourse with Cottle as well as in a relatively loosely structured encounter group which he led for some months; in their homes, too, whose spirit is conveyed with much the same wistful acceptance that dominates Robert Coles' description of similar scenes in The Middle Americans. Cottle's account of their values, fears, and aspirations is moving and informative though curiously soft in focus —the images he projects are touching, but blurred, and do not etch themselves in the memory. Many of Cottle's sharpest observations are quickly lost behind a peculiarly oracular, ambiguous screen of commentary intended, I believe, to convey an atmosphere of sympathetic concern without taking sides in the complex conflicts he discusses.
The effect is quite different from the traditional posture of non-commitment or ethical neutrality of the social scientist since Cottle is superbly sensitive to and interested in the moral nuances of social conflict. For weeks after reading Time's Children I struggled to understand why a book that seemed to me as warm, perceptive, and humane as this should create in me a nagging mistrust. This difficulty was finally resolved by no less eminent a magistrate than the Mayor of New York. Thomas J. Cottle may, I think, be the John V. Lindsay of social psychology: a man who understands exactly what is going on and wants only to advance the cause of decency, humane tolerance, and opportunity for growth for those most likely to be denied it. One cannot imagine such a man supporting the likes of Spiro T. Agnew; Mayor Lindsay thoughtfully spared us the necessity of imposing such a strain on our imagination. It remains, however, an odd thing for a Democrat to have done.
Cottle's position on the institutions that bear on Time's Children seems odd in much the same way. The truly memorable chapters of the book are those that deal, not with young men and women, but with the schools whose function and character are brought to light in a variety of situations refreshingly different from those usually described in the professional literature. "College and Career Night in Bristol Township" details the anxieties and concerns of parents in a working-class suburb of Philadelphia as they gather in the auditorium of Woodrow Wilson High School with their sons and daughters to listen to the pitches of the recruiters from the small local institutions which seek them as clients; the recruiters are well aware of the limited conception—and, indeed, tolerance—of higher education that Bristol Township parents possess; they come on like the door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. The next chapter, ironically entitled "Simple Words, Simple Deeds," recounts the harrowing experiences that befell the Cottles during the summer of 1968 and part of the following school year when Mrs. Cottle and several of her colleagues in the Wellesley, Massachusetts high school drama department were prosecuted for obscenity for producing LeRoi Jones' The Slave. This is followed by a brilliant, more abstract chapter, "Dressing Down the Naked Ape," in which Cottle analyses social forces that bring such situations about and lead to their resolution.
Cottle's empathy with ordinary Americans and their institutions, his easy, low-keyed acceptance of their needs and behavior—even when hostilely directed against his wife—allows him to discuss such educational crises from a startlingly new and revealing perspective. He writes rather like a herpetologist discussing the role of rattlesnakes in the ecology of the desert, aware of the dangers they may present to the unwary but even more keenly sympathetic to their plight as an increasingly complex and unnatural environment threatens, or is felt to threaten, their existence. This perspective becomes misleading at the point when, having abandoned the bigoted and unwarranted notion that rattlesnakes are vicious, one proceeds to underestimate the difficulties and continual frustration involved in working out an environment that would be equally acceptable to rattlesnakes and to others and feels guilty because one's respect for their nature had not overcome one's aversion to them, or one's determination to deny them a dominant role in the ecosystem.
Middle Americans are not, of course, venomous serpents, as even illiterate peasants in the snake-infested jungles of southeast Asia must by now be aware. But if the comparison is held to be insulting to people rather than snakes, it can only be because to compare men to beasts is to deny men moral responsibility. This, I believe, is just what Cottle's identification with ordinary Americans does; it converts insight into special pleading and reduces our power to resist them where their actions are manifestly destructive. In his discussion of the schools, brilliant as it is, Cottle does allow his sympathy to deprive him of moral judgment. In discussing Wellesley High School students' objection that censorship of the high school curriculum is irrational, he concludes:
Students put forth the strongest point, perhaps, when they ask what cognitive, social, psychological, or natural magic is performed over the summer following high school graduation that "permits" them to study sexuality, philosophy, psychology, LeRoi Jones and Desmond Morris as college freshmen but not as high school seniors. The answer is, no magic at all. The change is a sociological one. It is not chronological age that matters as much as the definition and nature of the school as an institution. It is important, moreover, to those who live by the regulations and rituals of these institutions. For understandable reasons personal change is not so easily made.
It's surely understandable why the high schools and their public should be as they are; their condition has perfectly explicable historic and economic roots, and performs certain readily understood social functions. In very similar terms, one can explain why in the 1930s and 40s the Germans turned to genocidal anti-Semitism while the German-speaking Swiss dug banks rather than mass graves. Banks can be pretty horrible, too, in their way; still, on balance, I much prefer the Swiss. The social scientist, of course, need not express a preference; he may seek only to understand and explain. But Cottle does not quite do this; his chapters on the occupation of Harvard's University Hall in April, 1969, and on "The Spring of Death" at Jackson and Kent State, among other campuses, are cool, though sorrowful, in their approach to the young dissenters who bring upon themselves and their institutions the fury of their countrymen:
Strangely, universities bring upon themselves the mirror images of national and international dilemmas and tragedies. If young men refuse to go to war, they arrange to bring soldiers to their campuses; and if real ammunition is employed and real orders to kill are obeyed, then the scene has shifted still one more time and all of us learn that war games are replications of the real thing, not rehearsals for it. Is it only a matter of time before the highest administration will alter its policies and report that troops have been sent to invade America's intellectual sanctuaries, or at least those within twenty miles of huge American cities? Will it be, then, that bodies and politics like rough cement blocks will slide by one another and the hard friction will etch scars of irreparable damage on an entire society, and not merely on the face of higher education? But that's exactly what some want; so we'll have to wait for history to make its decisions and discriminate between the ineffable and the desecrating.
Well, not in all cases, perhaps; I think I can discriminate between National Guardsmen at Kent State and Harvard students trying, however poor their prospects of success and confused their emotional state, to drag their university out of the war. Not even the scars on the face of higher education or those that have irreparably damaged our entire society have created so much confusion of identity. Nor are those scars marks from bloody physical conflict, common and tragic as that has become. It is America's self-image that has been most horribly disfigured and the scars appeared as they did on Dorian Grey's picture. It is this fact which so enrages ordinary Americans, committed to patriotism and obedience and unwilling to perceive that obedience too is a conscious choice with all the consequences that attend free will.
Cottle's purpose in Time's Children seems to me admirable. America has long clung — somewhat incomprehensibly — to the vision of itself as "one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." That image is now shattered; and its fragments lethally sharp. Cottle, I think, would restore it and make it the reality it never was. Even if the image stayed cracked for ever, at least people would no longer be cut to pieces by it. Like many less perceptive peacemakers, he has come to address himself first to the grievances of his more conventional compatriots rather than to those of young critics, just as a mother may side with an enraged father against a child who is infuriating by reason of the very justice of his grievance—so that the defeat of the father will not drive him to violence and reduce the home to chaos. But America, I believe, has gone too far for this; the Southeast Asia war is a real bummer; like the worst possible acid trip, it has already told us far more about ourselves than we can either bear or forget, Books like Time's Children are like thorazine; they calm the reader, but they waste the tragedy. If there is a way back to social sanity, it can only be by pushing on through a kind of national ego-death in which all the pieces, including the horror, fall together to make the society something different altogether from what it was, incapable, in its new integrity, of ever again being driven by the greed and terror of its past. This is what some young Americans want for their country. They appear in Time's Children, sometimes conspicuously, but they are not its heroes.