Teenagers And Social Reform

Steve Weiner a current member of the National Committee of the Social Democrats USA was a 15 year old high school student in 1966 and a member of the famous “Students for a Democratic Society” At that time he wrote an article called “Teenagers and Social Reform” which was a sophisticated analysis of SDS prospects for organizing high school students to be participants within the radical movement  of the 60’s. The article was published in the “Students for a Democratic Society Regional Newsletter” of February 1966. Its link is http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt1c6001bd&brand=calisphere&doc.view=entire_te xt It is extremely interesting to compare the realistic picture of high school political life that Steve presented in 1966 to that of the present. Enclosed is the article.


Teenagers And Social Reform

Much has been written and debated about the social-awareness of adolescents. Much attention has been given to the social and political aspects of teenage subculture, notably rock and roll. As a high school freshman, I would now like to speak.

To begin with, let me define my terms. In my view, a teenager is a high school (or, in some cases, a junior high school) student. Most teen-agers take some part in “teen-age activities” —rock ‘n roll, dancing, etc.

From my own experience, let me say that from what I have seen, a large-scale, adolescent “protest movement” is non-existent. The number of teen-agers like myself taking part in various radical activities is a very small minority. And bear in mind that my own experience is based largely on the Bay Area, a center of leftist activity. This is rather depressing, for if so few teen-agers are in the movement near Berkeley, imagine what the situation must be like in, say, Kansas.

Why is the Movement to change America such a flop at nearly all American high schools? Well, of course, many teen-agers are probably too apolitical to care. Right, left, Eisenhower, Mao, McCarthy—it’s all the same, just “politics”. Most of my schoolmates come from solid, middle-class, conservative families. If they have any political convictions at all, they are rightist. They have not felt any sense of urgency concerning politics. It is hard for them to comprehend nuclear war, racial injustice, hard luck. Life has fed them well. Why should they be radical? And I, myself, can’t really blame them. It is hard for me, too, to realize that Orinda is totally unlike the rest of the world. We are sheltered, we are blinded. What can we do? And how can you tell the son of a Standard Oil executive to hate big business? How can he reject his food? He is not a Vietnamese peasant; he can’t hate the war. How can John Doe, Jr. be changed?

First, he can be taught. He can realise the extent of the misery of the world’s masses. He can learn that it is more than an empty cliche to say “Money isn’t everything”, nor is social status. He must learn that non-violence and love are not beatnik, Commie, or fairy ideals. The question is, are the schools teaching him this? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Recently, in my history class, we held a discussion on non-violent demonstrations. Most of the class did not participate, and of the members who did, the majority felt that most of the members of the New Left are beatniks, Communists, or both. I was surprized when a slight majority of the class felt that non-violent demonstrations would be legal. However, most of them would not participate—it would “embarrass” them. They would feel like “jerks”.

But what of the politically aware, intellectual students? What influence do they have. Well, many politically active students are rightist. They are a potent force which we must reckon with. However, the sad fact is that the Right-Left battle excite very little interest among 75 per cent of the students. The right-left debate has no audience. We are dueling with one another upon the stage, but the seats are empty. It is almost a pathetic spectable, nearly tragic. Yet, perhaps all the effort is worthwhile, for occasionally students begin to question, to wonder.And then we must try to reach them. And sometimes we may succeed.

In the preceding paragraphs I have outlined rather vaguely the different types of teen-agers involved in our efforts I would now like to analyse briefly the teen-age subculture, and its relevance to our struggle. To begin with, rock ‘n roll: in late summer, last year, there was a craze for protest songs. Barry Mc Guire’s song “Eve of Destruction” reached number one proportions in certain areas of the country. Bob Dylan was a star, so were Sunny and Cher. The Rolling Stones, very radical (however, apolitical) were extremely popular. And the Beatles. However, the fact is that this appeared to be just another teen-age craze. Protest is no longer “in”, nor is Dylan, and Sonny and Cher are “out”. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, who do no political protest, really are still popular. Of course, the tide could turn and protect could be revived again. One should not exaggerate the significance of this; it appears to have been largely just another fad. However, I heel that the mere fact that these singers were popular at one time suggests that occasionally, we are stirred, something happens, we scream.

Teen-agers naturally revolt. They desire independence. This is the time to question parents’ values. But I do not believe that kids must be taught to despise their parents because their parents are part of the Establishment. Let us not turn our movement into one of hate for the middle class children, as men like Le Roi Jones would have us do. Let children love their parents, even if they reflect their society. This is a very important point. Non-violence must be kept wherever and whenever it can. Let’s change society, not hate its victims. This is a strong plea for the teen-ager who feels baffled by it all—politics, sociology, war, morality. Let’s hurt as few people as possible, including the teen-ager. He has a hard enough time as it is.

Now I would like to offer a basic program for getting to the adolescent, helping him question his parents and their values, without hatred.

We must communicate, first of all. As everyone knows, radicals have had a very bad habit of isol ting themselves from the masses. This is particularly true of teen-agers. The teen-ager is not yet an adult, and cannot communicate with adults on a wholly adult level, and yet, we cannot be talked down to like children. It’s a difficult situation. This is the time when teen-agers would be taught to question parents’ values, to develop some of their own principles. But we are not yet mature enough emotionally to become crusaders. We cannot afford to be arrested, we can’t handle the full moral burden of civil disobedience. Adolescence is essentially a time for learning, not action. The question is, what methods of education do we employ to reach adolescents?

To begin with, the schools are not really doing an adequate job. In school, you work for the grades to get into college, you don’t work to learn for personal satisfaction. The emphasis is still on career training. This is especially wrong, for as we all know, work is going to become less and less important in the future. In the school, the atmosphere is generally deadly dull. Some classes, some teachers are intellectually exciting, but they are exceptions. All of this is really well-known, especially to teen-agers and the New Left. So my question is, isn’t it possible to set up outside-school discussion groups, such as is being done at the college level? However, the point to hear in mind is that teen-agers are not as mature, emotionally or intellectually, as college students. Has this been overlooked? Perhaps SDS members could come and talk to school kids, using the Socratic method. How many kids would respond? I don’t know. Probably a minority, but possibly a very sizable minority. Of course, many would, if the discussions would relate to their everyday problems: sex, parental authority, fear of the future. If this method were undertaken, many teen-agers would open up and respond. Many churches are currently using this informal discussion method but I don’t know how much succes s this has been having.

Since rock ‘n’ roll is such a popular teenage recreation, SDS could sponsor more dances than it does now, and not just for fund-raising for a cause. The dances should not be held at the Longshoreman’s Hall or in San Francisco exclusively, but should be held all around the Bay Area in various neighborhood and suburban dance-halls, auditoriums, etc. These should be for the purpose of having fun, not for promoting causes. Blow mind!

Now I would like to discuss some ways in which I feel that the movement is failing. In the first place, many socially aware teens are making asses out of themselves. I think that wearing offbeat clothes, Ben Franklin specs, and withdrawing into a snotty “hip teen” cult of pot, SNCC, and L.S.)., is a very grave mistake. Teenagers naturally conform a great deal; middle class teens especially. To be different for the sake (it appears) of shock value, is self-destructive. The average teen with middle class hopes and values will despise you if you do this. We can’t alienate ourselves. The most common charge against us is that we are beatniks, Commies. We cannot afford to let our enemies continue to spread this lie. The stakes are too high for playing games. The future of America, and the existence of life on this planet depends on our success in reaching the young—particularly teenagers—who are still forming their ligelong values, whereas in many college students, they have already been formed. If teenagers learn new, humanistic, tolerant values; the course of human history will be changed. Therefore, it is important that those of us with different values be friendly with our more conventional schoolmates and let some of our values rub off of them, and some of their values rub off on us. We can learn from them too.

— Steve Weiner

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