Coming of Age in America
by Edgar Z. Friedenberg

Review by
William H. Stoddard
Random House: New York, 1965
300 pages
August 2003


I first read Coming of Age in America when I was in my teens, not long after it was published in 1965. Naturally I didn't have enough knowledge or experience to grasp all of Friedenberg's points — starting with the title's reference to Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and the sarcastic view of Americans as a primitive tribe that it suggested. But Edgar Z. Friedenberg's willingness to suggest radical ideas stayed with me. So did the memory of having found his book interesting, and a few years ago when I happened on a used copy I bought it and discovered what I formerly had read past.

Coming of Age in America is about the experience of going to high school: its impact on the lives of high school students and on their later political outlooks. Theoretically, Friedenberg says, high school is intended to prepare its students to be citizens in a democratic society. But in practice, it trains them in submission to arbitrary authority. High school students have no inalienable rights; they have privileges, granted to them in exchange for submission and conformity, and taken away without reason or recourse. The degree to which this is so varies from school to school — students from upper-class families have more resources for resistance — but Friedenberg cites comments by teachers who disliked the idea of having to deal with such students for that very reason. Many teachers liked having their small measure of authority and resented any student who weighed it lightly.

This book grew out of Friedenberg's formal research on the values of high school students, and much of the book describes that research. Each of his subjects read six vignettes about life at an imaginary high school, ranked nine comments about each vignette from best to worst, and then discussed their top and bottom three choices with Friedenberg or his co-researcher. Friedenberg quotes some of these discussions and most of the vignettes and comments (an appendix presents the complete material) and reviews the patterns he found. All tended to support the same basic pattern, though more or less clearly.

The six vignettes start with a teacher's encounter with a boy smoking in the washroom; go on through a new player's tryout for the basketball team, a dance disrupted by the bad behavior of some students, and the choice of a student to represent the school in a meeting with a foreign king; and end with the choice of a love poem to discuss in a superb teacher's English class, and the trials of a boy whose closest friendship is disapproved of by the school administration. The social complexities, character sketches, and conflicts (overt or potential) have enough dramatic potential for a well-written television series — though probably not one that Friedenberg's subjects would have been offered in the 1960s. The text is also full of little jokes, such as the name of the fictitious school, LeMoyen High School (moyen is French for average or mediocre). One of the love poems offered was two lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning,

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,

and Friedenberg wryly comments that "our boys seldom hope, and our girls seldom expect, that the expression of love will be erect and strong." Several characters recur from episode to episode, and the point of the later episode sometimes turns on information in the earlier.

The final episode's subtexts went right past almost all the subjects — or perhaps they couldn't bring themselves to talk about them, though I can say that I only recognized them on my recent rereading, not when I read it originally in my teens. The story involves two boys who become close friends: Alan Slade, the son of a prosperous lawyer, and Johnny Barto, a lower class boy with a bad reputation, originally seen smoking in the washroom in the first vignette. A girl named Monica St. Loup (another of Friedenberg's little jokes; her name, French for "Saint Wolf," suggests her predatory role) is attracted, first to Johnny and then to Alan, and when she gets nowhere with either of them she discusses the situation with the dean of boys, who throws Johnny out of school and tries to pressure Alan into psychotherapy. Under this pressure, Alan's grades fall off, his tennis game goes to pieces, and he takes to drinking and is arrested for drunk driving. His parents support him, pointing out that all of his personal problems began after the dean's intervention.

The point of all this, strongly hinted but never overtly stated, is that Alan and Johnny are suspected of homosexuality, and that their lives could be destroyed as a result even of the mere suspicion. In the 1960s, and for some time afterward, this was a realistic enough possibility so that it's believable that subjects who thought of this interpretation might not have felt safe in bringing it up; Friedenberg was ahead of his time in including this in a book about the civil liberties of students.

The general consensus of Friedenberg's subjects took the dean's helpful motives at face value and faulted Alan and his parents for refusing this help. This same pattern shows up in the incident about smoking in the washroom. Friedenberg explicitly points out a very different ranking of preferences (all but identical to what I would choose now) based on civil liberties concerns — but his subjects didn't think of such an interpretation, though surely most of them had been taught about individual rights in social science classes. It may not have occurred to them that those rights could be expected to have anything to do with high school; but from the comments he quotes it seems that more of them focused on the school's intention of helping its students, and saw the students' resistance not as a personal right but as an inconvenient obstacle to their being helped. This of course is exactly the basic assumption of socialism as contrasted with individualism, though it seems that Friedenberg's subjects thought of themselves as anti-Communist, and the student rebels of a few years later ironically thought of themselves as socialists. It was quite a relief to read the comments of a 15-year-old Italian girl that

Mr. Blakely's interference in this matter is very much an interference in Alan's private life. What Monica told him in his office — well, I don't think he should take it too seriously. I mean, she might have lied or maybe exaggerated something ...

Friedenberg also notes the general preference of his subjects for personal conformity and the pursuit of conventional success. When they pick students to meet the king, they favor the college-bound girl with good grades and a record of social service; they don't like the brilliant boy who argues with his teachers or the equally bright boy who dresses like a beatnik and only bothers to work for successes he personally cares about. The popular cheerleader who sings in the church choir appeals to them much more than the gifted violinist who puts music ahead of social activity. When they choose poems, few of them favor Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," with its evocation of mutual personal loyalty as the only hope in a world "where ignorant armies clash by night."

Friedenberg sees all this as bound up with issues of class conflict: the school exists to indoctrinate students in middle-class values and middle-class conformity, and is hostile to the poor, to students with aristocratic values (often but not always from wealthy families), and to the creative and divergent. The picture of social stratification is much like the one in Paul Fussell's witty classic Class, published nearly two decades later (1983); and it's somewhat akin to that in Richard Florida's more optimistic The Rise of the Creative Class, only recently published (2002). Friedenberg's comments on the undercurrent of hostility to the rich in American society are perceptive, as are his remarks on the ability of the rich to evade sociological study. Hints of class conflict are scattered through the vignettes, though they evoked very little response from the subjects, and the basketball team and school dance episodes, which depended on these issues, produced the least sharply defined patterns.

Friedenberg finds this whole situation deplorable, and proposes to alter it. In the first place, he argues for doing away with compulsory school attendance. In the second place, he calls for the extension of the approach of the G.I. Bill to elementary and secondary education, providing grants to send students to any schools they or their parents choose, and advocates a much greater diversity of schools. In the third place, he proposes a reform of teacher training, not just to include more liberal arts courses, but to attract the kind of prospective teachers who would prefer a liberal education to one centered on professional and administrative methods. All three were radical proposals in the 1960s and remain so, though the second has now acquired a name, the voucher system, and a set of proponents. They were ahead of their time and they still are — or at least one might hope they have a future.

Despite his Ph.D. in education, Friedenberg revealed in this book the kind of liberally educated mind he wished could be attracted into teaching. Reading it conveys the sense of having a long, interesting conversation with an intelligent observer. If a classic is a book that remains interesting to read after the issues it examines have faded into history, then Coming of Age in America isn't yet a classic, but it has the potential to become one.


© 2003 William H. Stoddard

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