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Self-Fulfillment and Educational Reform

by William Proefriedt - 1983

The author traces the self-fufillment movement from the 1960s to present and discusses three resulting educational reform attempts with respect to this movement: (1) humanistic education; (2) values education; and (3) career education. (Source: ERIC)


Only the most unsophisticated of social critics reduce the American dream to its most materialistic expressions or to an exclusive focus on social and economic mobility. Since Franklin, the drive for entrepreneurial success has gone hand-in-hand with a concern for self-improvement on a broader front. The life and writings of Thoreau, satires on the social and cultural inadequacies of the self-made man, Lewis’s portrait of Babbitt, and the perceived faltering of the man in the grey flannel suit attest, however, to the continuing recognition that the pursuit of the materialistic aspects of the dream somehow erodes the possibility of any genuine sort of self-fulfillment. Two strands thus emerge in the culture’s attitude toward self-fulfillment, one embedding it in materialistic and social success, seeing these as a necessary foundation for further growth as a person, and another that sees the search for self-fulfillment as essentially apart from, even hostile to, the pursuit of success. While Franklin found fulfillment in a balanced commitment to materialistic success, personal growth, and public acclaim, Thoreau rejected the marketplace and the burly-burly of political life, went off to Walden, choosing to live life closer to the bone, and offered himself as a standing affront to those he saw as marketing themselves to their neighbors for wealth and respectability.


The emergence of the concern with self-fulfillment in the late 1960s, a concern that continues in our day, exhibits both these strands. There, an individual embraced voluntary poverty to find the self and there, another, or perhaps the same one in another season, lived out the Playboy fantasy of soft women, plush carpets, and fast cars. One found the self in rejecting the materialistic version of the dream; the other moved in and through that materialism, subjecting it to what he, at least, considered to be his own criteria for self-fulfillment. For most of us in the last two decades, the strands have been intertwined; we have been about the task of sorting out what were the necessary ingredients in the dream, what left too bitter an aftertaste, and what sort of mix was necessary to achieve self-fulfillment. Recall for a moment some of the forms this concern with self-fulfillment has taken since about 1965.


The most evident were the packaged experiences of what came to be known as the human-potential movement. Thus, in our efforts at self-fulfillment, we encountered and confronted, bathed, touched, and Rolfed. We transacted and transcended, meditated, tossed the I Ching, and embraced a belief in astrology or ESP; we chanted and hallucinated, jogged and exercised, generated alpha waves and consumed vegetables and vitamins. We went to Arica and Est, tried computer therapy and Esalem, got in touch with ourselves and related; we got our act together and became whole people, self-actualized and let out primal screams.1 It is difficult to overestimate the foolishness of the times. So we spent our days like Plato’s democratic man, “every day indulging the desire that comes along; now he drinks deep and tootles on the pipes, then again he drinks water and goes in for slimming; at times it is bodily exercise, at times idleness and complete carelessness, sometimes he makes a show of studying philosophy.”2


Of course, the pursuit of packaged experience was rooted in a more general cultural shift that surfaced in the late 1960s, expressed itself in a variety of forms in the 1970s, and has left an ambiguous legacy for us in the 1980s. The extraordinarily diverse and often contradictory strands in this shift make it difficult to recall, sort out, and name the parts and to analyze them in any fruitful fashion. For me, and in retrospect, it started the year I graduated from a small Catholic College in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Long Island as the Dodgers were leaving Ebbets Field and heading for Los Angeles. Church reform, the sort of thing I was interested in then, was essentially liturgical and a papal legate told us that it was fruitless to argue for a vernacular mass, as such a radical reform was simply not in the offing. I moved to Long Island and began driving back and forth to my teaching job in Suffolk County and by the time I could afford an FM radio for my car, the music was already changing and the best I could do was to muster a sociological interest in its effects on my students. The music was one of several boats I waved to from the shore. Soon, a group of us teachers became union and civil rights activists (at the time, you could be both). The issues for us included whether dissident teacher groups could use mailboxes, and whether community civil rights organizations could stage Martin Duberman’s In White America in the local high school auditorium. We marched together in Washington and ate fried chicken on the grass by the Lincoln Memorial. We really believed that Martin Luther King’s dream was about to become a reality. Meanwhile, the kids were growing their hair just a bit longer, were less impressed by school and parental authority, and some in my English class were able to make the connection between the poetry of Wilfrid Owen and America’s growing involvement in Southeast Asia.


In 1966, after teaching high school for nine years, I spent a year on a federal grant at Teachers College, Columbia University, completing course work for a doctorate. There, as I talked in the cafeteria with some of the younger doctoral students, my own hard-won political and social liberalism began to appear a bit stuffy. They offered a radical vision of American corporate and government power at home and abroad and identified themselves, verbally at least, with armed struggle in the Third World. On Broadway and along Amsterdam Avenue the Muslims sold Muhammed Speaks. Increasingly Columbia was forced to acknowledge the existence of Harlem. My own political perspective edged to the Left. I was no longer convinced, as I once had been, of America’s essential decency and goodwill. As I began teaching at Queens College in 1967, the shifts I observed in myself and in others around me were still essentially political. But quickly the music and the hair, the drugs and the dress, merged with the political into a new college life-style with which I confess I was never quite comfortable.


Too many of us college professors of the late 1960s and early 1970s were watching the kids to see which forks we were supposed to use with our new moral salad. Dissatisfied with the materialistic and competitive society of which we were a part and yet aware that we ourselves were trapped within one of its institutional expressions, we admired the kids, who, unlike ourselves, acted immediately on what seemed to us to be the same insights we had, but which for us issued only in resentment, withdrawal, and academic snobbishness. In a badly thought out conclusion we embraced the romantic doctrine of the child as savior. Few of us approached in degree of silliness the attitude of Charles Reich toward the young, but we did think for a while they were onto something we had missed. Politics was becoming the politics of consciousness and one could see that the students were not just after definable social goals: righting specific racial injustices, redistributing wealth, or altering foreign policy. “At the heart of everything,” Reich told us, “is what we shall call a change of consciousness.” This meant “a new head-a new way of living-a new man.”3 Forsaking by design the analytic mode, Reich saw a new consciousness developing in the young and became its celebrant. Christening the new consciousness, Consciousness III, he saw it as liberating, viewing the individual self as the only true reality against which all else was to be measured. But Consciousness III for Reich was not selfishness or egocentricity; rather, it was “honesty, wholeness and genuineness in all things. . . . a radical subjectivity designed to find genuine values in a world whose official values are false and distorted.”4 (This was quite a burden to place on the young people.) In Reich’s schema, Consciousness I reflected an older America of small towns and businesses: emphasized individual character, the family, a stern morality, and hard work; believed in progress and bent to the task of subduing a continent. Consciousness II supported the values of an organized society. Technocratic and bureaucratic, it believed in regulation and planning. It was exemplified not by capitalist exploitation, but by mindless impersonal forces that swallowed up individual lives. Reich reflected the conflation of life-style and politics evident on my own campus. He saw it all-campus demonstrations, Woodstock, beads and bell bottoms-as part of a consistent pattern. For him marijuana was a “maker of revolution, a truth serum,” and he counseled the young to “resist the state when you must, avoid it when you can; but listen to music, dance, seek out nature, laugh, be happy, be beautiful, help others whenever you can . . . live freely in each moment. love and cherish each other, love and cherish yourselves, stay together.”5 Beyond the transformation of their own lives, Reich officiously asked the young to assume responsibilities for their parents and teachers and others, who seem to be the enemy but are in fact “only the deceived, the broken and the lost.”6 The campuses themselves offered indeed only the most visible and bizarre expression of what Yankelovitch, in retrospect, perceived as a “transformation of the psychoculture.”7 Some would see these goings on of the late 1960s and 1970s as an overpublicized shift in the values of a minority of the affluent. My own reading is that the shift in values and behavior was and continues to be much more widespread but that the shift is selective. Blue-collar workers and others not at the cutting edge of cultural change do not buy what the cultural elite perceives as the comprehensive package, and in the selection process they alter some of the values they adopt. The business of cultural change is jumbled, ragged, uneven, and not controlled by cultural manifestos or conceptual formulations.


The larger movement of which campus developments were a part certainly involved questioning the accepted values of the society. And many perceived it at the time as bringing the values of the society to the bar of a set of self-fulfillment criteria. This ascendancy of the self included a challenge to the notion that personal fulfillment was typically to be found for men in the pursuit of a career and for women as homemakers and supporters of their husbands and children. Not a few men in grey flannel suits on Madison Avenue or in blue collars in Detroit began to see that competition for income, status, and power or even the search for respectability in the work place could be damaging to one’s chances for personal happiness. For some, and clearly not always in an articulate fashion, this dissatisfaction with a definition of self as essentially career and work-oriented broadened into a challenge to an earlier ethic of finding fulfillment in work and sacrifice. Men perceived new duties to self apart from their roles in the work hierarchy and as family providers. At the same time, the women’s movement moved on its perception of the limiting definition of women as sustainers, cheerleaders, and supporters of their husbands and children.


We saw all of this as first of all a turning inward, a reflecting, an effort to get at, to understand, and to allow our real selves to emerge rather than to accept selves that had been defined for us by “society.” Sometimes this led us to a rather comic self-examination, but it nevertheless included a prophetic commentary on what was indeed a largely unexamined set of superficial and destructive values and beliefs embedded in social institutions. Our changing attitudes toward sex reflected this new effort to admit to and pursue our needs rather than to repress them for the sake of religious beliefs or barely understood social goals. No longer seen as merely a minor function within marriage or an occasional dalliance for the relief of physical tension, sex moved to the center stage of the search for personal happiness, and sexual relations were also brought to the bar of the concern with self-fulfillment. At the extreme, the sexual partner was transmuted into an exercise machine for the new spiritual athleticism. In a desperate effort to fulfill our spiritual needs we moved from Arica to Est, from Jane to Sarah. As so many recognized, given our inability to find personal happiness in the competition for status, wealth, and power, sexual relations offered an alternative form of self-fulfillment. Contraceptive options and a variety of other forces provided an encouraging context for women to become more sexually active and for both men and women to engage in extramarital experimentation, varieties of open marriage, and spouse swapping.8 Premarital sexual experimentation moved in many circles from being taboo to being sensible or even de rigueur. Staying together for the sake of the children no longer carried quite the weight it once had; fulfilling one’s own needs, we heard, would make one happier, a better parent, and would more likely help, in the long run, to produce better children.


Our new way of thinking about the self and its relation to the world, of course, included for some a more explicitly social challenge. We perceived government officials, corporate leaders, and the representatives of other powerful institutions in the society as knaves, but we saw the solution not in the transformation of structures and institutions, but in a desultory, periodic throwing out of the most throwable knaves, the politicians and union leaders who, after all, and unlike the corporate officers, had to stand for election. More typically we turned from the public arena to those areas of life that seemed more likely to enhance personal happiness.


The self-fulfillment or human potential or self-awareness movement has not been without its critics. Its own excesses, of course, outstrip all efforts to present it in a farcical light. Critics from the political and cultural Right and from the Left have united against a common enemy in pointing up the banality and silliness evinced by the movement. It is surely true that the packaged experiences offered to those in search of some sort of self-fulfillment promised far more than they could deliver. Most implied that the task of human growth was not something that would take very long or exact much of a price; they too often promised easy enlightenment through the acceptance of a few formulae and by passing through a brief set of experiences. The most significant criticism from the Left pointed up the extent to which the pursuers of self-awareness, and the merchants of its packaged experiences, ignored the social dimensions of life. In focusing on personal growth they ignored or even deliberately downplayed the need for a transformation of the social and economic realities of life. Sometimes, when they did, in fact, address themselves to these social realities, they saw, grandiosely, the problems of the world dissipated in a few decades as more and more people subscribed to the particular mind-cure in question. Others in the movement argued against blaming the social system for personal unhappiness, viewing such a strategy as a cop-out. The Left saw the net effect as a message of either adjustment to the status quo or of withdrawal from it. The sources of unhappiness were to be sought within the individual. In all of this, the Left complains, one never consults with others on one’s collective interests nor seeks to join with others in analyzing and transforming those structures in society that limit the possibilities of personal growth.9 The focus on self-awareness leads finally to unawareness of the social reality around us. The Left criticism further urges that the self-fulfillment movement is not a prophetic commentary on America’s competitive, materialistic values but simply a heightened expression of them. The search for self-fulfillment is seen as a kind of spiritual consumerism in which each vies with others in the task of “getting one’s head together” or “becoming whole.” Psychological one-upmanship replaces the competitiveness of the occupational and consumer marketplace: “You’ll understand it better after you’ve been through the experiences I’ve been through.” In this view the emergence of the hard-edged success and power concerns of Ringer,10 Korda,11 and others in the late 1970s is not a departure from the self-fulfillment movement but its ultimate cynical and self-defeating expression.


The question of how we got from the upwardly mobile, house-in-the country, station-wagon executive of the 1950s to what appears to be only a more vulgar expression of the same ideals in the Looking Out for #1 12 and Dress for Success13 approach of the 1980s is indeed a difficult one to answer. The men in the grey flannel suits apparently discovered that the dream they sought was not without its very high costs. They exhibited a certain dissatisfaction and hip quality issuing in self-satire, self-deprecating humor, the three-martini lunch, and the office affair. The aging man in grey flannel looked with some interest on the college campuses of the late 1960s and early 1970s where he saw, first of all, a genuine political and social commitment. Second, and mixed with this, he saw an experimentation with new life-styles and third a politics of expression in which individuals seemed interested in using the public space usually reserved for political action as a kind of theater in which they might play out their own needs and hostilities. At a graduation I attended at a college in Connecticut in the early 1970s a student ascended to the stage to receive his diploma dressed only in a large American flag. The meaning of his protest was, of course, lost on the invited graduation audience. Like the antics of Jerry Rubin, it worked neither as politics nor as therapy. The focus was more on self-dramatization, a shortcut to the fulfillment of insatiable ego needs, than on a genuine concern with creating a more just society. Even those with less neurotic needs found the search for self-fulfillment in political or social action too difficult to sustain. The college involvement of the late 1960s and early 1970s is, however, not reducible to the expression of some utterly asocial narcissism on the part of the young and the abdication of all adult responsibility on the part of college faculties intent on romanticizing the youth culture. Such mean-spirited versions of recent history miss the complexities and the genuine personal and political commitments of the times. The young people who worked on voter registration and education projects in the South (where some gave their lives); who organized the marches, demonstrations, and political activities that finally turned the country around on the Vietnam War; who learned the lessons of economic power that the nation had to teach; and who experimented with new approaches to personal fulfillment and relations with other people deserve more than such easy dismissals. They correctly identified the deepest problems of our society, and sought to ameliorate them: racism, the war machine, the concentration and abuse of economic power, and the lives of quiet desperation lived by so many of us caught up in these contexts. The new popular history of these events developing on college campuses denies the very real problems to which many of the young addressed themselves, the moral vision that emerged in those who sustained the struggle, and the continuity of these movements with a variety of community-organizing, labor, campus, and political-action groups that have emerged in the 1980s. Nor should the human potential movement itself be dismissed out of hand.

Wachtel’s comments on it point to the need for some rethinking of the harsher aspects of the Left critique of it: “The movements did begin with a moral impulse,” he reminds us, “however much they may have subsequently strayed. In the 1960s concern with self-awareness and personal growth reflected a rejection of the materialism that was seen as the basis for a social system that oppressed its minorities and wrought havoc around the world.”14 Wachtel urges that while we expose what is meretricious in the movement we must take care to represent adequately the legitimate claims of the self. The point is not to legitimize Est but to point up the fact that for many, the search for self in the 1960s and 1970s represented a rejection of the living of one’s life within the success ethic and an effort to join with Thoreau in living life a bit closer to the bone. Those who seek an abstraction like “social justice” must finally measure this success by the quality of the lived experience of individuals within the society. Anyone involved in social action has met too many individuals who have failed to face up to the necessary tasks of self-reflection and self-development and who instead bury their personal problems in groups and causes, to the detriment of those around them and of the very goals they espouse.


Yet the human-potential movement as it developed from the political activism and countercultural concerns of the 1960s finally strayed a long way from Walden Pond. Seeking human fulfillment, without patience, without community, and failing to slough off a view of the self as a salable commodity, it betrayed its own potential as a prophetic alternative to the kind of life against which it protested. A traceable and vigorous strand of flawed individualism runs through all of it. It is the same Jerry Rubin after all who is a self-dramatizing political activist, then entrepreneur of the human potential movement, and then just plain entrepreneur. When Reich applauds the costuming and dress of the young in the late 1960s: “The new clothes are a declaration of sensuality, not sensuality for display as in Madison Avenue style, but sensuality as a part of the natural in man,”l5 he takes pains to separate the tastes of the young from the imposed fashion of the society. Such a separation, however, if it ever existed, was surely not sustained; the identification with the worker expressed in the wearing of jeans by the middle-class college students of the 1960s has developed into quite something else with the wearing of pin-striped designer denims in the 1980s.


Those who were not dedicated in a sustained fashion to the transformation of the society but who like Reich’s idealized youth sought personal fulfillment through poverty: “He may take a job such as teaching in a ghetto school, which offers neither prestige nor comfort, but offers the satisfaction of personal contact with ghetto children”16 soon turned to tennis and consciousness-raising groups and finally to the stock market for satisfaction. Neither the need for personal expression nor sentimentality turns out to be a sustaining motive for the struggle to create a better society. Sara Davidson tells how her sister, who at one point lived communally, “ate only vegetables, practiced yoga, made God’s eyes out of yarn and sticks and rode long distances to march in peace demonstrations,” went to Hawaii and made a bundle selling real estate. In the room where she used to do sewing and pottery was a sign: Y.C.S.A.S.O.Y.A. “You can’t sell anything sitting on your ass.”17 Such ironies caught up with too many of us.




Some time ago on a drizzly Monday morning I dropped my daughter off at her high school on my way to work. I watched a middle-aged man walking his dog on the large front lawn of the school; the dog stopped and defecated according to plan and man and dog went on their way. I spent part of my time driving to work thinking about the meaning of that act. As I arrived at my own campus I observed a reenactment of the scene I had just witnessed at my daughter’s school on a small grass plot bordering one of the parking lots at the college. This time the man was older, a retired gentleman no doubt, the dog larger, and the deposit he left behind the same. Here were two men who intentionally chose public spaces connected to public institutions as the site for their respective dog’s defecation. Neither of these men would take the dogs to a neighbor’s lawn, which is clearly an owned space; they do, however, take them deliberately and habitually to a public space, which they apparently perceive as belonging to no one. They undoubtedly think of themselves as good citizens, but do not define good citizenship as including any special deference toward public space.


Such concrete instances, it seems to me, serve also as metaphors for the manner in which we have retreated into ourselves and pursue only our private interests, neglecting, indeed acting hostilely toward, public space and public concerns, Lowered participation in voting and other political activity, the decline of the urban infrastructure, and the new permission to be selfish are only a few of the expressions of this turning away from public concerns. The sociologists offer reasons for this phenomenon. They are surely correct that individuals have a sense of their powerlessness in our society. It is first of all a matter of size. Rousseau saw correctly that a good state must have some limitations of size. In what sense, in a state of two hundred million, can the public assemble, discern its will, and effect it? Further, we become painfully aware that matters of state are shaped by a few publicly powerful individuals for private ends. It is not just the size of the state that convinces us of our own powerlessness, but the imbalance of power among individuals, and so we retreat into our private activities of skiing, meditating, having sex, making money, and raising families, seeking to draw a circle around ourselves to protect us from incursions of the outside world; but neither the nuclear threat, the economy, nor a host of other problems goes away.


Daniel Yankelovitch has addressed the question of our ignoring public concerns in our search for self-fulfillment. He traces a recent shift from a commitment to the work ethic to an unquestioning belief in the importance of competing for success; of sacrificing for one’s family and of confidence that hard work always pays off, on the one hand, to a new set of rules on the other hand in which self-fulfillment is seen as in conflict with the success ethic, in which people begin to experiment in sexual matters, in the roles they accept, and in a variety of other ways, producing a new language of self-fulfillment, a new psychoculture in which the meanings of words and actions change dramatically. The meaning of a woman’s sacrificing her own possible career, for example, for the sake of her husband’s and children’s lives has changed; in the new psychoculture what was once admirable and taken for granted is now challenged and often rejected. But, Yankelovitch tells us, this new emphasis on self-fulfillment through experimenting with new life-styles and through the rejection of the older values of competition, family maintenance, and social respectability is itself threatened by very recent economic developments. Our present critical economic situation has led Americans, according to Yankelovitch, to question our old faith in the American dream. “We have moved from a faith in an open-ended future to a fear of economic instability. . . . This survey technique. . . shows that from the 1950s to the late 1960s Americans believed the present to be superior to the past and expected the future to improve on the present. By 1978 this pattern had wholly reversed itself; to the majority the past now looked better than the present and the present better than the future, a truly historic shift away from optimism to bleakness.”18


Now it must be noted that both the traditional drive for social mobility and the new concern for self-fulfillment depend on a strong economic base and on the growth of the economy. But if the party is really over, as Yankelovitch asserts is the case, and if, as he also tells us, Americans clearly perceive this to be the case and are showing signs of psychological distress because of it, then we might expect some significant reformulation of American thinking and behavior related to our central commitment to individual opportunity and self-fulfillment.


Alterations in the economic realities, it would seem, should lead to new changes in the psychoculture. But here Yankelovitch falters. Those who believe that present economic realities, specifically a no-growth economy, might lead us toward an economic equalitarianism as a basis for self-development and those who have pointed up the need to look more carefully at questions of the distribution of wealth now that we no longer can look forward to everyone’s getting a larger piece from a continually expanding economic pie are dismissed as somehow alien to traditional American thinking on such matters: “The perceptions of egalitarian reformers, including Jencks, of how the system works and what is good and bad about it bear almost no resemblance to the shared meanings of getting ahead, fairness, luck, equality, competition and social class that really do turn up in the American psychoculture.”19 Yankelovitch goes on to say that Americans in interviews accept the phenomenon of social class and wish only that the hierarchy were based on a criterion like moral goodness rather than on money, but have no realistic expectation that such a change will occur. While Americans are willing to place a floor under incomes, they wish neither to deprive the rich of their riches nor, because they hope someday themselves to move upward, do they wish to limit their own possibilities. Americans cite their own experiences of doing better than their parents. They know that injustice and privilege exist, but see them merely as “roadblocks to be bypassed.“20 They reject the notion that class or family background is a significant determiner of who gets ahead in America.


Yankelovitch is correct that any program for change in America that hopes to be successful needs to be rooted in American culture, language, and realities, but it seems to me that in this instance he makes the error of erecting American answers to poll-takers’ questions about equality and social mobility into an adequate explanation of the American social reality. Thus, that Americans believe that individuals can and should overcome class determinism and go on to become successful individuals is a significant social fact in its own right, but it is a kind of populist romanticism and grossly misleading to take such beliefs as an exhaustive explanation of the realities of class and mobility in our society. Yankelovitch chides the equalitarians for their brushing aside of popular beliefs as “false consciousness”; while the Left has certainly used this critique of American attitudes indiscriminately, it nevertheless is of some value. How else are we to account for Yankelovitch himself first pointing out the contemporary perception of parents that things will not be better for their own children and then pointing to the American belief in social mobility, based on personal and parental experience, as nullifying those perceptions of the future? The present belief that our children are not likely to do as well as their parents, that the future is not likely to be as good as the past, surely represents a challenge to our belief in social mobility through personal effort.


The difficult economic realities we are now facing are adduced by Yankelovich in order to advance his thesis that the ethic of self-fulfillment has run into an economic snag. He sees our psychology of affluence (the idea that you can always expect more) and our “me-first” theory of the self as self-defeating, that is, as ultimately undermining the possibilities for genuine self-fulfillment. As a solution, Yankelovitch calls for “a new realism of expectation and a renewed emphasis on the social virtues of sharing, giving, committing, sacrificing and even denying one’s own pleasure of the moment.


And above all, there has to be renewed interest in the future in thinking about it, planning for it, saving for it and taking responsibility for it.”21 But why should such a change occur when Yankelovitch later tells us: “The actual condition of the United States economy, which is soft in spots but still potentially awesome in its productive power does not necessarily justify the public pessimism, sometimes bordering on panic about the ‘land of plenty’ becoming a ‘land of want.’”22 Yankelovitch, it seems to me, exhibits here a basic ambiguity that is attributable to the conflict between, on the one hand, his being caught within the American equality-of-opportunity ideology and, on the other, his recognition that we are faced with an economic future dramatically different from the one to which we have become accustomed. Yankelovitch calls for a new ethic of commitment, an ethic he sees as including some of the values of the older work ethic or ethic of self-sacrifice and some of the newer values of the ethic of self-fulfillment. This new ethic of commitment will involve, first, closer and more sustained personal relations, an element sorely missed by those experimenting with the ethic of self-fulfillment, and also the enhancement of relations in the larger community based on ethnicity, background, or shared interests. Second, it will include a substitution of sacred for instrumental values, that is, more and more people will obtain joy intrinsically from such activities as organic gardening, renovating homes, and engaging in a variety of arts and crafts. The direction in which Yankelovitch points is appealing but I doubt that we can get there while still maintaining our American ideology as is. Yankelovitch documents change in American attitudes and it is not impossible, after all, to conclude that the change in beliefs about our children’s futures may signal a change in America’s willingness to look at questions of the redistribution of wealth in our society. As Yankelovitch himself points out, it has been the belief in the possibility of becoming wealthy ourselves that has led us to an unwillingness to place a cap on individual wealth, and it has been a confidence in continued economic growth that has rendered distribution issues less significant. But as both continued personal mobility and larger economic growth become less likely, we may well be led to some equalitarian alterations in our traditional American ideology. The sense of community offered by Yankelovitch as desirable and likely is appealing to me, but I do not see it arising in a society in which there are enormous inequalities of income and power and decided differences in the quality of individual lives. We seem likely, rather, to continue to walk our dogs in the public space, to pursue our own ends to the neglect and detriment of others and of the larger community. The kind of commitment to one another, the reestablishment of the productive virtues, the delight in life of which Yankelovitch speaks, awaits, it seems to me, equalitarian alterations in our economic structure and in our ideology.




The major shifts in educational thought and practice that took place during the 1960s and early 1970s were of course a reflection of the changes going on in the larger culture; they were not merely the development of new techniques to implement accepted goals, but consisted rather of an effort to redefine educational goals and the practices that followed from them in line with the redefinition of personal and social goals occurring in the larger society.23 The very existence of free schools, alternative schools, storefront schools, schools within schools, and so on constituted a challenge to what was perceived as the dominant values of the society. The educational reformers did not perceive themselves as in charge of national educational policy, but rather as pockets of resistance; the theorists of the movement were fundamentally dissatisfied with the principles and practices of the society of which they were a part. They were not trying to do better the work of the larger society in its institution, the school; they were challenging the larger purposes of that society.


Paul Goodman, for a number of reasons, is a good choice with which to begin a discussion of the humanistic education of the 1960s and 1970s. He completed his major writings on school and society during the 1950s and the criticism he offers of both school and society is clearly aimed at the largely unchallenged values and practices of that period. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was clear that the issues of which Goodman spoke so eloquently in the 1950s were part of a contested terrain. Further, Goodman is deceptively erudite; he places his critique of society and schooling within a larger pattern of social and educational thinking and practice. Aware of the context in which he writes, he serves as a bridge from the liberal arts and progressive tradition to the “humanistic” educational reform of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was a few steps ahead of the Marxist critics of humanistic education who chided it for its lack of understanding of the realities of race and class in America and of those who called for a de-schooling of society. Finally, Goodman’s critique constitutes a commentary on the new conservatism in American education.24


In Growing Up Absurb Goodman assigns the blame for the disaffection of the youth of the 1950s to the values and practices of the “organized system.” What are the features of this system to which Goodman objects? It is, for him, a world focused on profits and prestige, evincing a canned culture. Public relations is king; the society is a closed room in which a rat race goes on. There is little useful work or concern with community. There is no heroism after which a young man may yearn. If the society is, as Goodman asserts, fundamentally flawed, then the socialization process is called into question: The question is no longer “how can we educate more effectively for this society?” but “why should we educate for the society at all?” Goodman realizes that it is possible to socialize people to almost any society, but why, he asks, would teachers want to participate in such a project? “The problem is not to get them to belong to society. The burden of proof and performance is quite the other way; for the system of society to accommodate itself to all its constituent members.”25 For Goodman, the rat race stifles the development of the individual. The individual, anxious to please the powers that be and to get ahead in this unlovely world, renders himself unsuitable as person, parent, or friend. Goodman strikes the first chords of the 1960s. The society and especially the schools, as the treacly posters of the humanistic educators will later chime in, are “not healthy for children and other living things.” In adjusting to this society individuals pay too high a price in the diminution of instinct and intelligence, the loss of power and grace.


Against the idea of socializing students to the existing culture he has excoriated, Goodman enlists two concepts: (1) socialization to what he calls a universal or potential culture and (2) the existence of a human nature resistant to the values of a flawed society. Thus Goodman at once asserts the primacy of the individual and, like Emerson, identifies the most important part of that individual with a universal nature. Then he attributes the aberrations of the young, the disillusionment, the boredom, the anxiety, and even the conformity to the existing society’s violation of human nature.


Seeing schooling as the universal trap of the rat race society, Goodman, before Illich, and in a wiser fashion, questions whether schools are the best places for most young children to be. The size and standardization he sees as doing damage to the child’s nature and to the possibility of inducting him into the universal culture. Too much formal schooling he decries as a mass superstition, an extension and enforcer of the bureaucratic society. For Goodman, reading becomes in our society a means of communicating advertising and top-down decisions; he wishes it to become instead a means of liberation and cultivation. Goodman is convinced, however, that the pursuit of a proper educational course, rooted in a respect for human nature and a concern with the universal culture, would be dysfunctional in our society.26


Care for the individual and distrust of the society can be seen as the background for much of the thinking and practice of the humanistic education movement. The humanists decried large school systems and buildings as depersonalizing and sought a more central place for attention to students’ feelings as they learned; they championed the affective dimension of learning against what they saw as exclusive attention to the cognitive. Like Reich, but rarely quite as foolishly, Goodman and others assumed a perceptiveness in youth about the problems of our society that really was a projection of their own insights. Friedenberg’s vision of adolescents as “knights in shiny chino pants” is today as embarrassing and wrongheaded as any of Reich’s excesses.27 But there is a great deal of ambiguity among the humanist educators on the question of the powers and abilities of young people left to themselves. To assert a confidence in the child’s abilities did not, after all, mean for Holt, Kozol, and others like them that the teacher had no function but to get out of the child’s way. Like the progressives before them, they saw learners as active participants in the learning process, rather than as passive listeners seated at their desks. They encouraged critical questioning and doubt in their students because they saw a great deal in the society to be questioned and doubted. They opposed teacher dominance and the notion of a set curriculum to be learned by everyone. They viewed individual students as capable of, in some sense, inventing their own curriculum. They opposed massive testing programs, not wishing to become a part of a selection process for a society with which they were at odds. Their interest in the individual was in his human development and decidedly not in fitting him into a system.


They called for an education that would be relevant to the individual, by which they meant that it would be responsive to the most universal concerns of individuals. But even here, following Dewey, they felt it necessary to remind us that one need not take present concerns as definitive.28


The humanistic educators probably were more marginal to the schools than proponents of new life-styles were to the larger society. They nevertheless offered examples of working alternatives in the free schools and provided a leavening influence in the public system. Certainly co-optation went on.


Often enough the rhetoric of the movement was adopted for public relations purposes by ambitious school managers. Examples of theoretical silliness and foolish implementation abounded. Dewey’s own critique of progressivism in Experience and Education is surely applicable to the work of the 1960s and 1970s.29 And, as with the life-styles of the 1960s and 1970s, there are sometimes altered residuals still functioning in the schools. Whatever the excesses of humanistic education, the perception at its heart was fundamentally correct.


Our society’s main direction and hence our educational goals were and remain fundamentally flawed. The humanists were trying to develop some alternative to the schools’ preparation of students for Goodman’s rat race in an unlovely society. They wanted to create places where children could follow a path to a genuine self-fulfillment, a path that did not include the development of characteristics necessary for success in the flawed society they opposed. Hence their failure: for finally the parents of both the poor and the upper middle class understandably, if sadly, train their children for the existing society. (I do not mean to suggest that all of the humanistic educators did the job they had set for themselves well; they clearly did not.)




It should surprise no one familiar with the changing psychoculture of the 1960s and 1970s that the form values education took during that period focused on the clarification and expression of one’s own values. Values education programs were clearly tied to the humanistic education movement but they were also appealing to those who were concerned with what they perceived as a growing amorality among the young. School people worked from the belief that students needed to develop their own values and should not merely accept a set of values imposed on them from above. In some ways this was a rescue operation. The educators perceived that the accepted values of society were under attack and sought therefore to have the young people invent and affirm their own values.


This was a brave if sociologically naive project. Students were asked to make choices about personal and social moral problems. (Should the little girl lie about her age so that she’ll be able to get into the amusement park? Who among a variety of people should have access to the lifeboat or the fallout shelter?) Students were asked to consider their choices carefully, offer reasons for them, defend them publicly, and act on them where possible.30 The strongest unspoken premise of the values-clarification approach was that the adult society had lost confidence in developing a public consensus on important value issues and educators were stepping in to mediate this problem with the young. The young then were not confronted with the breakdown of the adult value consensus but told that it was their task to formulate their own opinions on the great value issues of the day and often also that everyone was entitled to his or her opinion, that one opinion was as good as another, that facts and values existed in two distinct realms with factual statements susceptible to empirical proof and value statements (e.g., “the war in Vietnam is an unjust war”) matters of mere opinion. While students were assigned the task of formulating their own values, the task itself, by being torn loose from public rationality, was trivialized. If value inquiry was a matter of individual subjective opinion and rooted neither in an objective order nor in the rules of public discourse, what difference did it make what each student believed? If self-expression rather than critical and public discourse about a verifiable reality was the crucial goal, then education had to become therapy, and it did; the goal of inducting students into a community of inquiry was sacrificed to that of encouraging healthy expression.


The bravery in all of this consisted in the recognition that the usual sort of propagandistic socialization of young people was no longer workable, and in urging the young people to invent their own values. It was sociologically naive because it failed to perceive that the young people would, despite classroom efforts at forming their own opinions, ultimately reflect the values of a larger community whether that community was represented by parish and small-towm leaders or by rock lyrics on eight-track tapes. If one opinion on a value issue became as good as another, then, in the end, all talk of the moral dimension of life should stop and one should turn instead to serious matters. And we did.




The publication by Richard Nixon’s commissioner of education, Sidney Marland, of Career Education in 1974 signaled an important shift in the direction of educational reform.31 Preferring slurring and elision to clear distinctions wherever possible, Marland adapted the themes of the earlier reformers to his own intentions. With him, we move from the storefronts and backyards of the free schools to the paneled offices of Washington, from the denim uniforms of the counterculture to the pin-striped suits of cabinet undersecretaries and chief state school officers. And with the move, we trade in the deeply held if not always clearly analyzed vision that powered the writing and practice of the humanistic educators for a chamber-of-commerce boosterism designed to market a product, career education. Throughout his book, Marland seeks agreement with everyone and enlists all in his cause. Ben Franklin and John Dewey, Jane Addams, Alfred North Whitehead, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt, are all pressed into service. There surely is some unintended humor present when Marland quotes even Charles Reich and Abraham Maslow, the gurus of the counterculture and human potential movement, as supporters of the cause of career educations.32


Marland traces the immediate genesis of the idea of career education from conversations he had with Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Eliot Richardson about the aimlessness of students and his own desire to introduce awareness of work and the motivation of the work idea into school life from early childhood education through graduate and professional schools. A few weeks after his discussion with Richardson, “a call came to me from the Domestic Council Chairman, John Erlichman asking me to give immediate attention to increasing the place of ‘vocational education’ in the Federal role. He wanted a concrete plan and a systematic design for a major administrative initiative, with no increase in the budget. This was in the late Fall of 1970.”33


The following summer, the chief school officers of the several states met in Washington and Marland offered them a degree of discretionary power over certain federal monies if they would agree to use it to enhance his program of career education. They agreed. “It is not very productive,” he tells us, “to argue about when career education was born but some would say it happened that day.”34


Marland, with some justification, resisted defining his term, encouraging state school officials, parents, teachers, and others to fill it in for him. What he sacrificed in clarity of definition, however, he gained in allies. Emulating Lovejoy on “romanticism” and “pragmatism,” Marland traces the idea of career education through internal memoranda of the Federal Office of Education and state departments of education, in minutes of state and local boards of education, and in similar sources. Whatever exposes students to the world of work, offers them hands-on experiences, develops marketable skills, points up the connection of subject matter to the world of work, develops appropriate attitudes toward work, prepares people for a more meaningful work experience, Marland accepts as part of his cause. The Ohio State Center for Vocational and Technical Education filled the definitional gap. “The complete Comprehensive Career Education Matrix (CCEM), involving 32 subordinate themes, 1,500 goals, and 3,000 general performance objectives associated with these eight elements, stands as the most comprehensive operational definition of career education yet developed.”35


Marland is concerned that we have too many college graduates and too few people adequately trained for lower-level technical jobs. Career education is offered as the answer to the problem but it is never clear just what form the solution will take. Perhaps career education will contribute to the happiness of college-educated workers who have taken low-level jobs. Thus, Marland reports his conversation with Eliot Richardson: “It is not unlikely that we will have table waiters at the Hilton who are M.A.‘s in French or nutrition or social science, happily engaged in intellectual, civic and social pursuits, quiteapart from their work site."36 Then again he seems to suggest that career education will somehow change people’s attitudes so that they will respect workers at various economic levels. But to say, as he does, that society will value poorly paid work more is to engage in a contradiction. To say that career education will prepare competent hospital orderlies or warehousemen has at least a surface cogency; but Marland does not wish to lock himself into that sort of narrow definition of career education. One finally cannot fault James D. Koerner’s reference to the “conceptual and terminological fog which surrounds the subject.”37


Marland takes the concern with self-fulfillment developed by the human-potential movement and the emphasis on students’ needs and interests articulated by the progressive and humanistic educators and offers career education as a response. Meaningful work would indeed be part of any sensible self-fulfillment strategy and we would surely need to include a consciousness of and preparation for adult work roles in any education that sought to be relevant, but Marland needs to look more critically, as Paul Goodman did in the 1950s and early 1960s at the sort of work that exists and the nature of its distribution in our society. One cannot help but feel in reading Marland that the real issue that troubles him is the problem of social unrest generated by the mismatch between individual expectations for self-fulfillment and the availability and organization of occupations within the society.


The present return to a more conservative educational theory and practice includes much that is commendable .38 I share with the various commissions the concern with shoddiness and mediocrity, with the dilution of curriculum and with the failure to concretize high expectations in textbook assignments and grading practices; I share also the recognition of how little time is devoted to academic instruction and how teachers are “drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.”39 Nor do I have much quarrel with many of the recommendations that grow directly from these concerns.


What troubles me is that our renewed insistence on standards and excellence is unaccompanied by any critical reflection on the larger purposes of our schools and society. Instead we revisit the Cold War and the incantations of “excellence” and “standards” go on within a context of fear at the loss of American military and educational preeminence. Thus, the National Commission on Excellence in Education sees “a nation at risk,” “committing an act of educational disarmament”;40 and Mortimer Adler dedicates his report to, among other, “military leaders needing brainpower among the troops capable of coping with sophisticated weaponry.”41 Statements about an informed citizenry or the development of personal satisfactions are lost amid the expressions of fear that we are losing international prestige and power and relatedly suffering, at the same time, a diminution in the productive powers of the individual citizen.


I have no quarrel with the need to define a wider context within which to carry on the educational enterprise. I do quarrel, however, with the way in which such reports as that of the National Commission define the context. Significantly absent, for example, is any effort to spell out the implications for the content of the school curriculum of the present realities of nuclear weaponry. Albert Shanker, now marching under the banner of educational excellence, in an unexampled touch of unconscious irony, decries the National Education Association’s effort at peace education, Choices, as propaganda, while he urges that the Department of Education become a part of the Department of Defense.42 All of this concern for American power and production verges on the exploitation rather than the education of young people, and has a very real impact on what takes place in schools. Nor do the reports take seriously the impact of present inequalities on the life chances of individual children but repeat instead the discredited notion that educational reforms will somehow provide a fair chance to the children of poverty. In all of this we fail to take seriously the task of an education toward self-fulfillment within a genuine community. Unlike the humanistic reformers, the establishment reformers of our own day raise no questions about the price individuals must pay to succeed in our society; rather than resisting the values of the larger society, they celebrate them. The new socialization demands we place on the young grow out of this unwarranted confidence in the worthwhileness of our society. Goodman was correct: “Fundamentally there is no right education except growing up into a worthwhile world.”43




1 Any number of books have offered first-person accounts of packaged experiences of the human-potential movement. The most useful I have found is Adam Smith, Powers of Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975).


2 Plato, The Republic, Book 8 (559B-561A). in Great Dialogues of Plato, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (New York: New American Library, 1956), p. 360.


 3 Charles Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970). p. x.


4 Ibid., p. 226.


5 Ibid., p. 347.


6 Ibid., p. 298.


7 Daniel Yankelovitch, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (New York: Bantam Books, 1981).


8 Of the variety of books on this aspect of the concern with self-fulfillment, for sheer reportial comprehensiveness, I recommend Gay Talese, Thy Neighbor’s Wife (New York: Dell, 1980).


9 Edwin Schur, The Awareness Trap: Self Absorption Instead of Social Change (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976) makes this point repetitively. R. D. Rosen, Psychobabble (New York:Avon, 1975) focuses in detail on the language and theory of several representatives of the therapeutic trends of the 1970s. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Warner Books, 1979) looks more broadly at the cultural significance of the self-fulfillment concerns of the 1970s.


10 Robert J. Ringer, Looking Out for #1 (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1977).


11 Michael Korda, Power: How to Get It, How to Use It (New York: Random House, 1977); and idem, Success (New York: Random House, 1977).


12 Ringer, Looking Out for #1.


13 John T. Molloy, Dress for Success (New York: P. H. Wyden, 1975): and idem, The Woman’s Dress for Success Book (Chicago: Follet, 1977).


14 Paul L. Wachtel, “The Politics of Narcissism,” The Nation, January 3-10, 1981, p. 14. In this short, insightful article, Wachtel chides Rieff, Lasch, and Marin for their failure to see the contribution of the self-fulfillment movement and its links to political activism.


15 Reich, The Greening of America, p. 236.


16 Ibid., p, 232.


17 Sara Davidson, Real Property (New York: Pocket Books, 1981), p. 11. The title essay in this book nicely illustrates the shift of the self-fulfillment movement to material concerns. It does SO without the vulgarity of Ringer, Korda, and others.


18 Yankelovitch, New Rules, p. 181.


19 Ibid., p. 37.


20 Ibid., p. 140.


21 Ibid., p. 214.


22 Ibid., p. 198.


23 Allen Graubard, Free the Children: Radical Reform and the Free School Movement (New York: Vintage, 1974), is a book that captures both the theory and the concrete expressions of the free-school movement.


24 Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd (New York: Vintage, 1956); and idem, Compulsory Miseducation and The Community of Scholars (New York: Vintage, 1962).


25 Goodman, Growing Up Absurd.


26 Ibid.


27 Edgar Z. Friedenberg, The Vanishing Adolescent (New York: Dell, 1959). p. 31. There was, of course, much of value in Friedenberg’s books.


28 See, for example, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969): “We do not mean to suggest that a child’s perception of what is relevant is an unalterable given; indeed the thrust of the curriculum we have been describing is to extend the child’s perception of what is relevant and what is not” (p. 81).


29 John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1938).


30 Louis Rath, Merrill Harman, and Sidney Simon, Values and Teaching (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1966).


31 Sidney Marland, Career Education: A Proposal for Reform (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974).


32 Ibid., pp. 36 and 38. Reich’s commitment to career education is expressed in his claim that “a life of surfing is possible . . . not as an escape but as a life” (Reich, The Greening of America, p. 219). Reich saw the schools as engaged in career education before Marland came on the scene. In typical overstatement, he decried it. “The process by which man is deprived of his self begins with his institutionalized training in public school for a place in the machinery of the state” (pp. 129-30).


33 Marland, Career Education, p, 8.


34 Ibid., p. 11.


35 Ibid., p. 100.


36 Ibid., p. 42.


37 “What is Career Education? A Conversation with Sidney Marland, Jr. and James D. Koerner,” Occasional Paper No. 20 (Washington, D.C.: Council on Basic Education, 1972), p, 10.


38 See, for example, The National Commission on Excellence in Education, “An Open Letter to the American People, a Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” Education Week, April 27, 1983; Mortimer J. Adler, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (New York: Macmillan, 1983); and Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Policy (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1983).


39 National Commission on Excellence in Education, “Open Letter.”


40 Ibid.


41 Adler, The Paideia Proposal, p. xii.


42 See Albert Shanker, “NEA Trying to Teach or Indoctrinate,” New York Times, April 17, 1983; and National Education Association, A Unit on Conflict and Nuclear War (Washington, D.C.: NEA, 1983).


43 Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation, p. 59.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 2, 1983, p. 205-224
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 880, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:18:20 PM

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About the Author
  • William Proefriedt
    Queens College
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    WILLIAM A. PROEFRIEDT, a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, teaches philosophy of education and chairs the Department of Secondary Education at Queens College. He also teaches a course in American Studies.
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