Re: youth, morality...

m.bibby (
Wed, 24 Jul 1996 20:49:52 -0400

Ted Morgan's recent comments concerning youth attitudes in the 90s as
compared with those of 50s & 60s youth as well as our own (i.e. 60s-L folks)
morals and attitudes raises important points for consideration on the
list. Most of the recent historical research I've seen makes it very
clear that the kinds of morality we most often associate with a "60s
generation" were actually very much in a minority among youth during the
60s. Yet part of the continuing boomer mythologization of the 60s is to
perpetuate the view that somehow the 60s was a time of great idealism,
progressive activism, struggle for social justice, etc. and now we're
stuck with an a-moral, cynical "x-generation" 90s. We look at our
students and children and wonder why they're so nihilistic.

Currently I'm teaching a summer seminar on 60s activist literature--it's
a grad course that draws both recently graduated students from the area
and high school teachers, some who experienced "the 60s" firsthand.
What's interesting is the continuities in attitudes and morals across
generations. Many older students in the class remember feeling very
alienated and cynical about political change during the 60s and lived
very conservative lives; and many younger students are actively engaged
today in social struggles. Over the years I've met and worked with many
so-called "x-gen" young people who felt and acted in much more moral and
committed ways than (in many cases) myself or many of my generation--and
I've also encountered many whose apathy is astounding. I suspect that
the situtation was very similar in the 60s and 50s--but there were
certain *concrete* differences that have given the 60s its particular
aura in the public imagination, given it the sense that there was more
moral committment among young people than today. Some of these
differences are fairly obvious (the sheer fact of so many young people, the
war, the economy, civil rights struggle & legislation, the expansion of
media technologies, etc.).

Something that especially struck me as I've been teaching this class: I
showed the first segment from the *Making Sense of the 60s* series about
the 50s and how it related to the 60s and was amazed at the continuities
between the ideological structure of 50s life and post-Vietnam era life.
The corny documentaries about the importance of marriage, family, respect
for elders, confomring, etc. from the 50s sound very similar to the
public discourses we hear today. My sense is that it's these attitudes
and morals that have endured--the Nixon exploitation of the "silent
majority" and "law & order" and Reaganism suggest that what's truly
exceptional and perceived as "weird" (as our students might call it) in US
history is the kind of morality and vision for social justice we long
for in our students.

Some further questions: Does this view merely legitimate "60s
exceptionalism"? Why should we expect our students today to have the
morals of the archetypal politically and culturally active students of the
"60s" if, in fact, *most* students in US history haven't been like this?
My belief is that it's because we value such behavior in ourselves, our
peers, our work, and our vision of society--so if that is the case, why
don't we admit to it and stop pretending that it's some generational
difference that is somehow external to relations of power, to ideological

Michael Bibby