Long Hint of Student Uncommitment
UNCOMMITTED: ALIENATED WITH IN AMERICAN SOCIETY, Kenneth Keniston. New York: Court, Braes, and World, 1966.
Kenneth Keniston was a student teacher at Harvard from 1947 to with two years off for a Rhodes scholarship at Balliol. His career here was capped by a study of thirty-odd Harvard undergraduates showing various degrees of alienation, designed to find out "how they came to be alienated and what it is about our school that alienates them." In The Uncommitted, the book that issued from this study, Keniston supplies both the questions and the answers.
The author of this kind of book owes it to his reader to pin down his relationship to his material and also to show that the problem at hand is not a phony one. Although Keniston fails to do either of these things, parts of his book are phenomenally interesting, especially to a Harvard audience. Consequently David Riesman has once again invited Keniston to leave Yale (where he is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Medical School) for a day to give a lecture on his study in Riesman's course on American character and social structure.
"Uncommitted" is a more precise term than "alienated" for the climate of mind that interests Keniston. For alienation suggests vigorous indignation, but Keniston's uncommitted subjects discard even this sentiment in their "... almost complete repudiation of the competitive business ethos of American society..."
Keniston has found some striking similarities in the early life circumstances of the uncommitted, and the 175 pages devoted to this sort of depth psychology are the most fascinating part of the book.
"The family experiences of these youths inetilled in them a deep and usually unconscious conviction of the undesirability of adult maleness, and therefore of adulthood in general. At the most personal and unconscious level, this conviction stems partly from the image of their own fathers as weak, easily defeated and controlled, damaged by and unable to defend themselves against women. And another part of this conviction arises from the subjects' own childhood experiences with 'masculine assertiveness' and the unintended consequences of their competition with their fathers: aggressiveness, competitiveness, initiative, and rivalry--all qualities usually considered desirable among men in our society--had here led to disastrous results. Furthermore, the struggle for a woman's exclusive love resulted merely in being limited and bound by her. This 'lesson' persists into early adulthood, when the alienated still find themselves afraid of reciprocated intimacy with a woman."
Back to Bakunin
The uncommitted, then, are not political radicals who, though they may be alienated in one sense, share the organizational techniques of their unalienated brethren. They are--to use a word Keniston doesn't--nihilistic; their principal concern is making do. The life they have known has rendered them so passive that they have no interest in changing the society whose standards they resent. The battles these students fight are all personal; they are preoccupied with sentience, with the importance of breaking through the barriers to perception.
This smattering of quotes should suggest the intrinsic interest of the first part of the book. Yet it is important not to let the immediacy of the subject obscure the book's methodological limitations. First, Keniston is not much of a foreigner to his topic. He lived through many of the experiences which his subjects were struggling with, in the course of which he arrived at a personal stance which was bound to color his perception of uncommitted behavior.
Keniston's record (A.B. magnacum laude '51, Junior Fellow 1956-60) suggests a fairly high degree of commitment. But the composite uncommitted anti-hero of the first part of the book--Inburn, an American Ishmael--is clearly a hero to Keniston. Like Inburn, Keniston is critical of American society, but he has contrived to keep his disenchantment from interfering with objective achievement. In the first part of the book, the reader is at Keniston's mercy. It is in his power to make the uncommitted students he talks about attractive or offensive, justified or unjustified. That he takes their angst for an expression of midcentury malaise rather than, for example, a reaction to a hypocritical and impersonal institution is a function of his involvement with them and it. This quibble is not to suggest that the book should not have been written, merely that Keniston should have been more candid about his feelings toward his subjects and their environment.
Another question Keniston might well have anticipated is whether uncommitment might not be a temporary phase. The sort of self doubt and inner fragmentation which his subjects experienced can easily be seen as a severe identity crisis, as a former head section man in Soc. Sci. 139--like Keniston--should know. Erik Erikson's view of the life cycle makes such a crisis routine--a necessary prelude to adult identity and commitment. At one point, Keniston seems to acknowledge this possibility, yet he never incorporates it into the mainstream of his analysis.
"Some young Americans can ... live without a guarantee that they have made the best or the only choice: and this capacity to make commitments without guarantees is a prime symptom of strength of character. But others--perhaps most young Americans--undergo a period of confusion beforehand, and often seek escapes from their freedom."
It is too early to tell whether the uncommitted of his study are permanently uncommitted or not. If not--as is probably the case--then much of Keniston's indignation, and the justification for the book itself is called into question. The Uncom- mitted would then amount to no more than a highly empathic account of young people at an uncertain moment of their lives, plus some social and psychological reasons why their uncertainty should be so extreme.
At the beginning of his book, Keniston acknowledges a debt to "three extraordinarily wise teachers: Henry A. Murray, David Riesman, and Erik H. Erikson.
"From Henry Murray, I learned something of the enriching complexity of human needs and Imagination; Riesman increased my understanding of the power of social setting and social pressure to shape men's character and dreams; from Erikson, I gained greater insight into the interweaving of the developmental, the social, and the historical."
Clearly nobody has taught Keniston how to write. This deficiency would not be so serious if Keniston were an economist, historian, or even a psychologist of ordinary pretensions. But it seems that he would imitate his teachers, that he aspires to the position of free-lance social scientist, unfettered by the disciplinary distinctions usually imposed by the Academy. While the ambition is an hororable one, the plodding prose of The Uncommitted suggests that Keniston may not be the right man for the job--at least not at the age of 35.
Nowhere but in the writing of fiction is a literary sense as important as it is in the writing of generalized social science like The Uncommitted. But where it is important to amplify or explicate a thought, Keniston merely repeats it. In his chapter on "Chronic Change and the Cult of the Present," he argues that the dynamism of our culture and technology make it unwise to settle on a permanent personal orientation. Then he echos this thought twice in succeeding paragraphs (illustrating not only his habit of repeating himself, but also his penchant for listing nearly synonymous adjectives in series):
"Partly because of the pace of social change, identifications must be cautious, selective, partial, and incomplete."
"Replacing the more total identifications of the past are ever more partial, selective, and incomplete identifications."
The padded term paper has become the padded book.
Repetitiveness is also writ large in The Uncommitted; Keniston repeats chapters as well as sentences. He has evidently taken the hoary Gen. Ed. A dictum to heart: say what you plan to say; say it; say what you've said. This technique puffs up what ought to be a modest essay into a 500 page book, plus a separate monograph, The Alienated Student, as yet unpublished.
Accepting Keniston's premises and analyses--the sureness of his observations and the permanence of his subjects' uncommitment--what remedy does he prescribe? He urges the unleashing of the utopian impulse. "What is needed is to free that impulse once again, to redirect it toward the creation of a better society. We too often attempt to patch up our threadbare values and outworn purposes; we too rarely dare imagine a society radically different from our own." This moralism has become a commonplace in recent political thought, as has the demonstration that it is unlikely to occur. It is as fatuous to exhort intellectuals to think in utopian terms as it would be to encourage alienated students to embrace a commitment. Imagination is no substitute for experience, and until Keniston tries a little utopian theorizing himself, he can't expect his gratuitous advice to be taken seriously