Youth and absurdity

A review of Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organised System, by Paul Goodman (New York: Random House $4.50; London: Victor Gollancz 21s., 1961).

Submitted by Steven. on November 15, 2015

This is the only one of Paul Goodman's books to be issued in an English edition, and although Mr. Gollancz launched it royally, it did not get a royal reception in the British press. Cyril Connolly complained in the Sunday Times that "reading Mr. Goodman is like swimming in cotton wool", the Times Educational Supplement reviewed it under the headline "Transatlantic Tosh", Geoffrey Gorer demolished it in The Listener, declaring that "the publisher misleads the purchaser, and insults Professor Riesman by claiming in bold type on the dust-cover that this book is in any way comparable to The Lonely Crowd", and finally D. W. Brogan observed in The Guardian that

It is lavishly praised by Sir Herbert Read and Mr. A. S. Neill, praise that I, for my part, can take or leave. I leave it. What is more serious is that it is praised by Mr. Norman Podhoretz and Professor J. K. Galbraith. Neither Mr. Podhoretz nor Professor Galbraith is an anarchist, neither has contracted out of society as Sir Herbert Read and Mr. Neill have done. I have the greatest respect for both these social commentators, but I am totally baffled as to why they think highly of this book.

This chorus of bafflement and disparagement is very different from the book's original reception in America, for we learn from Richard Mayes that there it has "been reviewed extensively and favourably in a large variety of publications ranging from arch conservative to extreme liberal, and I'd like to say immediately, with some annoyance, that it is about time Paul Goodman is at last getting some of the credit he has so richly deserved for over twenty years."

You will see from all this that people are sharply divided on the merits of this book, and before describing its theme, I would like to express a modicum of agreement with its English critics. It has been badly put together by author and publisher: the reader has difficulty in finding his way around the book because the contents page is twelve pages away from the title page, and because 55 of its 296 pages consist of appendices A to F, most of them interesting in themselves but lacking immediate relevance to the text. It is not very well written and for us has the added irritation of colloquialisms whose meaning we have to guess at. But its worst fault is that it does not all speak with the same voice. Sometimes we are listening to the writer for the radical minority press, sometimes the didactic lecturer arguing from common premises, sometimes we hear the tone of a moralising leading article addressing the general public before last year's American elections:

Politically, what we need is government in which a man offers himself as a candidate because he has a new program that he wants to effectuate, and we choose him because we want that good, and judge that he is the best man to effectuate it. Is that outlandish?

Yes, Mr. Goodman it is, as well you know, For politics does not work that way.
But perhaps the reason why Growing Up Absurd has not had here the impact that its theme demands is that, superficially it falls into a category of American current literature with which we are over-familiar. For there has been a steady flow during the last decade of books from the other side of the Atlantic criticising the state of the American nation, Some have been good, some bad, and many of them have given us phrases which have gained a general currency: The Lonely Crowd, The Organisation Man, The Hidden Persuaders, The Shook-Up Generation, The Status Seekers, The Waste Makers, The Affluent Society, The Holy Barbarians – how their catchy titles roll off the tongue! As Richard Hoggart remarked, there is an endless future for this kind of thing, and in fact we have already got our homegrown English versions: The Stagnant Society and The Insecure Offenders – both of them far inferior to the best of the American species.

Goodman's book brings together several of the themes of the orgy of American self-criticism. It is sub-titled "problems of youth in the organised system" for he argues that "it is desperately hard these days for an average child to grow up to be a man, for our present system of society does not want men. They are not safe. They do not suit." And he studies the reactions of several dissident groups in American life: the juvenile delinquents, the hipsters (or cynics) and the beats.

He starts by considering the changing concept of human nature and of the "socialisation" of the individual human being. A curious thing has occurred: unlike their predecessors, contemporary social scientists are no longer interested in fundamental social change, for they have hit on the theory that you can adapt people to anything, if you use the right techniques:

Our social scientists have become so accustomed to the highly organised and by-and-large smoothly running society that they have begun to think that "social animal" means "harmoniously belonging." They do not like to think that fighting and dissenting are proper social functions, nor that rebelling or initiating fundamental change is social function. Rather, if something does not run smoothly, they say it has been improperly socialised; there has been a failure in communications.

The question that Goodman asks is "Socialisation to what? To what dominant society and available culture?"

He thinks first of jobs. American society he declares "has tried so hard and so ably to defend the practice and theory of production for profit and not primarily for use, that now it has succeeded in making its jobs and products profitable and useless." We may readily assent in the examples he cites from salesmanship, entertainment, business management and advertising, but what about a job like teaching – a job which is necessary, useful, real, creative and obviously self-justifying? Well, he asks, why do many teachers suffer first despair and then resignation? It isn't only because it is carried on under impossible conditions of overcrowding and public parsimony, but because the school system has spurious aims: .

It soon becomes clear that the underlying aims are to relieve the home and keep the kids quiet; or, suddenly, the aim is to produce physicists. Timid supervisors, bigoted clerics, and ignorant school boards forbid real teaching. The emotional release and sexual expression of the children are taboo. A commercially debauched popular culture makes learning disesteemed. The academic curriculum is mangled by the demands of reactionaries, liberals, and demented warriors. Progressive methods are emasculated. Attention to each case is out of the question, and all the children – the bright, the average, and the dull – are systematically retarded one way or the other, while the teacher's hands are tied …

Or take the job of motor mechanic: it is useful, interesting, satisfying to watch the car that was towed in rolling out on its own. What happens when a young man who takes on this job discovers that the manufacturers do not want their cars to be repaired or repairable, and that "gone are the days of keeping the jalopies in good shape, the artist-work of a good mechanic", since car repairs have become a matter of cosmetics and not mechanics.

It is hard for the young man now to maintain his feelings of justification, sociability, serviceability. It is not surprising if he quickly becomes cynical and time-serving, interested in a fast buck. And so, on the notorious Reader's Digest test, the investigators (coming in with a disconnected coil wire) found that 63 per cent. of mechanics charged for repairs they didn't make, and lucky if they didn't also take out the new fuel pump and replace it with a used one (65 per cent of radio repair shops, but only 49 per cent. of watch repairmen "lied, overcharged, or gave false diagnoses").

He concludes that the majority of young people in America are faced with the alternative that society is either a benevolently frivolous racket in which they will manage to get by, or else that society is serious and it is they who are useless and hopelessly out. "Some settle for a 'good job'; most settle for a lousy job; a few, but an increasing number don't settle." This is the main theme of his book: "The simple plight of these adolescents could not be remedied without a social revolution. Therefore it is not astonishing if the most well-intentioned public spokesmen do not mention it at all." Writing about the organisation men, Goodman tells us little that we have not been told suavely by William H. Whyte; about the urban juvenile delinquents he is, because of his own condemnation of the society to which they have failed to "adjust", more enlightening than most writers. Instead of looking for a concept of delinquency, he suggests we expand the subject as "a series of possible punishable relations obtaining between the boy struggling for life and trying to grow up, and the society that he cannot accept and that lacks objective opportunities for him." This series he sets out thus:

1. Acts not antisocial if society had more sense.
2. Acts that are innocent but destructive in their consequences and therefore need control.
3. Acts antisocial in purpose.
4. Behaviour aimed at getting caught and punished.
5. Gang fighting that is not delinquency yet must be controlled.
6. Delinquency secondarily created by society itself by treating as delinquents those who were not delinquent, and by social attempts at prevention and reform.

But by far his most illuminating thoughts are about the Beats. (So much has been written on this theme that it is hard to be interesting about them.) He is not really an enthusiast for their art and literature, but he recognises that some of their habits "like being unscheduled, sloppy, communitarian, sexually easy-going, and careless of reputation," are "probably natural ways that most people would choose if they got wise to themselves – at least so artists and peasants have always urged." And he makes this telling point about the jobs they choose:

Many of the humble jobs of the poor are precisely not useless (or exploiting). Farm labour, hauling boxes, janitoring, serving and dish washing, messenger – these jobs resist the imputation of uselessness (or exploitation) made against the productive society as a whole. These are preferred Beat jobs. For one thing, in them no questions are asked and no beards have to be shaved. Nor is this an accidental connection. Personal freedom goes with unquestioned moral utility of the job, for at the level of simple physical effort or personal service, the fraudulent conformity of the organised system sometimes does not yet operate; the job speaks for itself.

In his chapter on The Missing Community, Goodman talks about the "missed revolution that we have inherited", the fundamental social changes that have failed to occur, or have half-occurred. These range from syndicalism to "permissiveness". His argument is that "the accumulation of the missed and compromised revolutions of modern times, with their consequent ambiguities and social imbalances, has fallen, and must fall, most heavily on the young, making it hard to grow up."

Goodman, contrasting the "organised system" – its role playing, its competitiveness, its canned culture, its public relations, and its avoidance of risk and self-exposure, with the simple "fraternity, animality and sexuality" of the disaffected young, feels, as a revolutionary of an older generation, heartened by these "crazy young allies." I hope he will not be disappointed.