Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society

By Paul Goodman (1960)

Revolt Library Anarchism Growing Up Absurd

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(1911 - 1972)

American Writer, Critic, Psychotherapist, and Anarchist Philosopher

: As the movement became the Movement and shifted to a struggle between the Old Left and the New Left, Goodman remained unapologetically free. Many of his former followers abandoned him as he refused to offer a blueprint for building structures for the future, preferring the formulation of here, now, next. (From: Fitzgerald Bio.)
• "As our families are, the children in both their present satisfaction and the free growth of their powers, are certainly crushed, thwarted, pushed, hurt, and misled by their hostile and doting grown-ups. Frankly, I doubt that you can find one child in a dozen who is not being seriously injured, in quite definite and tangible ways, by his family." (From: "The Children and Psychology," by Paul Goodman.)
• "There cannot be a history of anarchism in the sense of establishing a permanent state of things called 'anarchist.' It is always a continual coping with the next situation, and a vigilance to make sure that past freedoms are not lost and do not turn into the opposite, as free enterprise turned into wage-slavery and monopoly capitalism, or the independent judiciary turned into a monopoly of courts, cops, and lawyers, or free education turned into School Systems." (From: "The black flag of anarchism," by Paul Goodman.)
• "Anarchism is grounded in a rather definite proposition: that valuable behavior occurs only by the free and direct response of individuals or voluntary groups to the conditions presented by the historical environment. It claims that in most human affairs, whether political, economic, military, religious, moral, pedagogic, or cultural, more harm than good results from coercion, top-down direction, central authority, bureaucracy, jails, conscription, states, pre-ordained standardization, excessive planning, etc." (From: "The black flag of anarchism," by Paul Goodman.)


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1. In every day’s newspaper there are stories about the two subjects that I have brought together in this book, the disgrace of the Organized System of semimonopolies, government, advertizers, etc., and the disaffection of the growing generation. Both are newsworthily scandalous, and for several years now both kinds of stories have come thicker and faster. It is strange that the obvious connections between them are not played up in the newspapers; nor, in the rush of books on the follies, venality, and stifling conformity of the Organization, has there been a book on Youth Problems in the Organized System. Those of the disaffected youth who are articulate, however—for instance, the Beat or Angry young men—are quite clear about the connection: their main topic is the “system” with which they refuse to co-operate. They will explain that the “good” jobs are frauds and sells, that it is intolerable to have one&rsqu... (From :

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Introduction: “Human Nature” and the Organized System 1. Growing up as a human being, a “human nature” assimilates a culture, just as other animals grow up in strength and habits in the environments that are for them, and that complete their natures. Present-day sociologists and anthropologists don’t talk much about this process, and not in this way. Among the most competent writers, there is not much mention of “human nature.” Their diffidence makes scientific sense, for everything we observe, and even more important, our way of observing it, is already culture and a pattern of culture. What is the sense of mentioning “human nature” if we can never observe it? The old-fashioned naïve thought, that primitive races or children are more natural, is discounted. And the classical anthropological question, What is Man?—“how like an angel, this quintessence of dust!”—is... (From :

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I. Jobs 1. It’s hard to grow up when there isn’t enough man’s work. There is “nearly full employment” (with highly significant exceptions), but there get to be fewer jobs that are necessary or unquestionably useful; that require energy and draw on some of one’s best capacities; and that can be done keeping one’s honor and dignity. In explaining the widespread troubles of adolescents and young men, this simple objective factor is not much mentioned. Let us here insist on it. By “man’s work” I mean a very simple idea, so simple that it is clearer to ingenuous boys than to most adults. To produce necessary food and shelter is man’s work. During most of economic history most men have done this drudging work, secure that it was justified and worthy of a man to do it, though often feeling that the social conditions under which they did it were not worthy of a man, thinking... (From :

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II. Being Taken Seriously 1. The simple job 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. In this book we shall come on other objective factors that are not mentioned. But it is hard to grow up in a society in which one’s important problems are treated as nonexistent. It is impossible to belong to it, it is hard to fight to change it. The effect must be rather to feel disaffected, and all the more restive if one is smothered by well-meaning social workers and PAL’s who don’t seem to understand the real irk. The boys cannot articulate the real irk themselves. For instance, what public spokesman could discuss the jobs? The ideal of having a real job that you risk your soul in and make good or be damned, belongs to the heroic age of capitalist enterprise, imbued with self-righteous beliefs a... (From :

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III. Class Structure 1. In our economy of abundance it is still subject to discussion whether or not there is as much poverty as there was in the Thirties when “one-third of a nation was ill housed, ill clothed, ill fed.” Some say 20 per cent are poverty-stricken, some as many as 40 per cent. Census, 1958: 31 per cent. (But it is hard to determine a criterion of poverty. E.g., a Negro family in the rich county of Westchester, New York, might have an income of $4000, yet have to pay so much rent for substandard housing that it can’t make both ends meet. In New York City novice Puerto Ricans are fleeced four times as much for a quarter of the space that experienced citizens manage to find in the same neighborhood.) Nevertheless, all students would agree on two propositions: The composition of the poor has changed immensely; it now consists mainly of racial and cultural minorities, including migrant farm lab... (From :

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IV. Aptitude 1. Our subject is the present waste of human resources. Yet this waste is nothing new. Considering our wonderful faculties and powers, people on the average have never accomplished much. Regarded just as machines of virtue, pleasure, wisdom, battle, or friendship, we have always operated at a tiny fraction of capacity. This is evident if we contrast how people usually hang around with how people come across in emergencies, or when they are enthusiastic, or when they are calmly absorbed. Children find the average inactivity very painful and they nag, “What can I do? Tell me something to do.” Adolescents are restive hanging around, and they think up ways to make trouble. Adults are inured to it, and Schopenhauer claimed that boredom is a metaphysical attribute of the World as Will. Psychologically, we define boredom as the pain a person feels when he’s doing nothing or something irrelevant, instead of something... (From :

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V. Patriotism 1. In 1783 Washington sent a circular letter to the States, describing the situation of the new nation as he saw it. “We have equal occasion to felicitate ourselves,” he said, “on the lot which Providence has assigned to us, whether we view it in a natural, a political, or moral point of light.” He pointed to the natural resources of the new nation, its independence and freedom, the Age of Reason during which it had come of age, an age of “the free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of commerce, the progressive refinement of manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all the pure and benign light of Revelation.… If these citizens,” he concluded, “should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be certainly their own. Such is our situation and such are our prospects.” It is hard to read these sentences without agitation and tears, for they... (From :

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VI. Social Animal 1. Let us next talk about marriage and so-called “animal” functions of the social animal. Everyone agrees that an important condition for the troubles of growing up is the troubles between the parents at home, brutal quarrels and drunkenness, coldness, one or the other or both parents getting away as often as possible and being withdrawn while present, and marriages breaking up. The most common popular, and mayoral, prescription for delinquency is “more parental supervision.” In the usual circumstances this would likely increase the tension and the trouble, but be that as it may: the question remains, how? how to have reasonable supervision when the marriages themselves are no good? for presumably the good marriages don’t have the problem children. (The frequent recommendation to fine or jail the parents is a lulu.) I do not think the public spokesmen are serious. For po... (From :

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VII. Faith 1. Let us exaggerate the conditions that we have been describing. Conceive that the man-made environment is now out of human scale. Business, government, and real property have closed up all the space there is. There is no behavior unregulated by the firm or the police. Unless the entire economic machine is operating, it is impossible to produce and buy bread. Public speech quite disregards human facts. There is a rigid caste system in which every one has a slot and the upper group stands for nothing culturally. The university has become merely a training ground for technicians and applied-anthropologists. Sexuality is divorced from manly independence and achievement. The FBI has a file card of all the lies and truths about everybody. And so forth. If we sum up these imagined conditions, there would arise a formidable question: Is it possible, being a human being, to exist? Is it possible, having a human nature, to grow up? T... (From :

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VIII. An Apparently Closed Room Given, then, this illusion of a closed world that seems so critical to young folk, let us make a new beginning and collect our sentences about their various kinds of reaction. I have been showing that there is one prevailing system of ideas according to which our organized society behaves in all kinds of cases: whether the Governor of New York asks what to do with unruly boys, or universities embark on basic scientific research, or the press defends fundamental freedoms, or a slum block is rebuilt, or a man works in a factory, or social scientists think about human nature. Lever House, a Ford factory, and the Air Force Academy are built in the same “functional” style, for there is apparently only one function, Public Relations. (If in fact we lived in the World of Public Relations and America were that world, there would be no bread to eat but only colorful cellophane wrappers with brand names, and t... (From :

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IX. The Early Resigned 1. The Beat Generation, in our model, are those who have resigned from the organized system of production and sales and its culture, and yet who are too hip to be attracted to independent work. They are a phenomenon of the aftermath of World War II, and even more of the Korean war. Their number is swelled by youths whose careers, hesitant at best, have been interrupted by the draft. This group is socially important out of proportion to its numbers, and it has deservedly and undeservedly attracted attention and influenced many young people. The importance of the Beats is twofold: first, they act out a critique of the organized system that everybody in some sense agrees with. But second—and more important in the long run—they are a kind of major pilot study of the use of leisure in an economy of abundance. They are not, as such, underprivileged and disqualified for the system; nor are they, as such, emotiona... (From :

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X. The Early Fatalistic 1. From the subjects of our last chapter, the Beat Generation, we could learn something culturally useful. If we turn now to the big-city juvenile delinquency of the underprivileged, e.g., new immigrants economically marginal, we are dealing with uneducated children. Their legal arrests and convictions occur at average age fifteen to sixteen, but their delinquencies date from twelve and thirteen, if not earlier; and of course they attend school the least and get the least out of it. The so-called “delinquent subculture” has a few flashing and charming traits, but nothing in it is viable or imitable. On the other hand, the fight these kids put up, the record of their delinquencies, does test and explore our society. The accounts and statistics of delinquency come mostly from social agencies, the police, and reform schools. In a sense we know about juvenile delinquency only from its failures, the lads who a... (From :

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XI. The Missing Community 1. The use of history, Benjamin Nelson used to say, is to rescue from oblivion the lost causes of the past. History is especially important when those lost causes haunt us in the present as unfinished business. I have often spoken in this essay of the “missed revolutions that we have inherited.” My idea is that it is not with impunity that fundamental social changes fail to take place at the appropriate time; the following generations are embarrassed and confused by their lack. This subject warrants a special study. Some revolutions fail to occur; most half-occur or are compromised, attaining some of their objectives and resulting in significant social changes, but giving up on others, resulting in ambiguous values in the social whole that would not have occurred if the change had been more thoroughgoing. For in general, a profound revolutionary program in any field projects a new workable kind of behav... (From :

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Conclusion 1. It is normal for sober adult citizens to take the wildness and absurdities of the younger generation tolerantly and with a touch of envious admiration, just as those adults who are more inhibited and insecure always must deplore them and feel that things are going to the dogs. In solidly established Augustan ages, such as the period in England between 1688 and the Industrial Revolution, the excesses of well-brought-up young men are even socially obligatory, under the style of sowing wild oats. In outrageously bad ages, such as the period in Russia during the last half of the nineteenth century, rebellious youth is esteemed as the hoped-for agent of change. These attitudes all make sense and apply in our times too. In this book I have no doubt been variously tolerant, envying, deploring, approving, and esteeming. It is not an interesting question whether or not our present Youth Problems are fundamentally different from those o... (From :

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Appendices APPENDIX A December 12, 1959 Commissioner of Education Albany Dear Dr. Allen, I understand that the case of James Worley of Croton Falls has come to you for review. Allow me to say something in his behalf. In content, his original protesting action (refusing to prepare a two-week lesson plan) seems to me beyond doubt correct. I myself have taught every age from ten-year-olds through Ph.D. candidates and older adults; it has been my universal experience that formal preparation of a lesson plan beyond the next hour or two is not only unrealistic but can be positively harmful and rigidifying, for it interferes with the main thing, the contact between the teacher and his class. Worley’s disagreement with the administrative order is, to me, simply evidence that he is a good teacher and knows what the right teaching relation is. A teacher who would seriously comply... (From :

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On Paul Goodman I am writing this in Paris, in a room about 4’ by 10’, sitting on a wicker chair at a typing table in front of a window which looks onto a garden; at my back is a cot and a night table; on the floor and under the table are manuscripts, notebooks, and two or three paperback books. That I have been living and working for more than a year in such small bare quarters, though not at the beginning planned or thought out, undoubtedly answers to some need to strip down while finding a new space inside my head. Here where I have no books, where I spend too many hours writing to have time to talk to anyone, I am trying to make a new start with as little capital as possible to fall back on. In this Paris in which I live now, which has as little to do with the Paris of today as the Paris of today has to do with the great Paris, capital of the nineteenth century and seedbed of art and ideas until the late 1960s, America is the closest of a... (From :

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From Dissent, Autumn, 1959. From Dissent, Autumn, 1959. From Liberation, January, 1959. From i.e., The Cambridge Review, Number 5. Throughout, AF refers to Academic Freedom in Our Times, by Robert M. MacIver. N. Y., 1955. Columbia University Press. 304 pp. One major, and surprising, defect in these books is their omission of any discussion of the small radical colleges like Antioch, Black Mountain, Goddard, etc., founded on more liberal principles than the authors’, and therefore with both a more intransigent standard of freedom and more embarrassment in being consistent. I should have thought their careers would be valuably relevant for comparison and contrast. But consider the dilemma: Such massive research and experiment must be financed, if not administered, by Foundations; and tho... (From :


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