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Feb 1, 1976

Liberal Parents, Radical Children

“There is no doubt that these liberal parents are to a great extent responsible for having created their radical children.”

Midge Decter has written an eloquent, sometimes bewildering book about the new generation gap that exists between middle-class liberal parents and their so-called radical children, who have not lived up to the achievement-oriented expectations of the enlightened class that spawned them. These children were expected to become the cultural, intellectual, business and political leaders of the future. Instead, they have dropped out of universities, become pot-heads, joined communes, or become pushcart vendors, taxi drivers, housepainters, movers of furniture, keepers of small shops. In fact, they seem more retarded than radical.

How could a generation of such bright, well-nurtured children, given advantages and care and love as no other generation has been given, wind up as such “failures”? Ms Decter blames the parents. “One need subscribe to no school of thought beyond that of the plainest common sense to be aware,” she writes in an opening “Letter to the Young,” “that the behavior of the members of my class and generation as parents has had the greatest bearing on your behavior as our children.”

What did Decter and the other liberal parents do wrong? “We refused to assume,” she writes, “partly on ideological grounds but partly also, I think, on esthetic grounds, one of the central obligations of parenthood: to make ourselves the final authority on good and bad, right and wrong, and to take the consequences of what might turn out to be a lifelong battle… . We allowed you a charade of trivial freedoms in order to avoid making those impositions on you that are in the end both the training ground and proving ground for true independence. We pronounced you strong when you were still weak in order to avoid the struggles with you that would have fed your true strength. We proclaimed you sound when you were foolish in order to avoid taking part in the long, slow, slogging effort that is the only route to genuine maturity of mind and feeling.”

There is no doubt that these liberal parents are to a great extent responsible for having created their radical children. On the other hand, Decter, out of a profound sense of guilt, runs the danger of placing too much blame on these hapless, well-meaning parents, whose crime, apparently, is in having loved their children too much. I would tend to look elsewhere. I would look into that vast, all-pervading American institution known as public education, through which virtually all of our youngsters must pass. In 1970 and ’71 I spent eighteen months as a substitute teacher in the high schools and junior high schools of a large Boston suburb, and I can testify that you don’t have, to come from a professional middle-class liberal family in a fashionable neighborhood to emerge as a hippie or a dropout or a pothead. All you really have to do is simply pass through the 12-year-long process of socialization and intellectual genocide that takes place in our government schools to emerge as the “failure” Decter so eloquently describes.

The proof for this can be found in the fact that American schools are producing the same misfits all over the country, from Texas to California, from Georgia to Maine, from New York to Oregon. Decter’s observations merely confirm that the children of liberal, middle-class professionals are no more immune to the intellectually debilitating influences of public education than are the children of auto mechanics, small businessmen, petty bureaucrats, and waitresses. The reason why such failure is more telling among those in Decter’s class is because intellectual achievement is a normal expectation among them, whereas it is not among the other social groups. And intellectual achievement is what our educational system specializes in preventing. The look-say method of reading instruction alone, which domintes our educational system, is sufficient to make it impossible for most American children to achieve any high degree of literacy. And without high literacy, intellectual achievement is impossible.

True, Decter and her generation made serious mistakes in the way they raised their children. They were overindulgent and overpermissive. But their most serious mistake was in subjecting their children to a system of education that has produced the greatest generation of intellectual cripples in our history. And so, instead of adding a new guilt complex to those already possessed by the guilt-burdened middle class, I would advise Ms Decter to take a good look into the local schoolhouse. Her next book might be entitled “Liberal Schools, Retarded Children.” Reviewed by Samuel L. Blumenfeld / Sociology—Education / G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975 / $7.95