Unfinished Revolutions:
Revising Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd
Taylor Stoehr in conversation with The Straddler

Of all the instincts that close friendship heightens, the one first impaired when a friend has gone is that which guides us, often over long distances, to a place we call home. Friendship imparts a sense of orientation (perhaps magnetic or celestial) by which we find answers to our important questions: Where am I? and Where to next? Without our friend, we turn up suddenly miles away from the familiar sights that once lent us our bearings. Following Paul Goodman’s death in 1973, the writer George Dennison described his friend, affectingly, as “an angel of mind whose feats of memory and analysis seemed like familiar descriptions of a much-loved home.”[1] Fortunately for Dennison, Goodman left behind a life’s work—the utopian essays, practical proposals, and little prayers, whose familiar descriptions led him, and many of like mind, home.

The cultural and literary critic Taylor Stoehr shared Dennison’s affinity with Goodman’s ideas, and in them found his own sense of direction. As a literary executor to both Goodman and Dennison, he edited and introduced more than twenty volumes of their work. But Taylor’s engagement with the radical thinking of sixties intellectuals was perhaps most meaningfully expressed in his work as an educator. For forty years, Taylor taught English literature at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and in 1994 he helped found an alternative sentencing program in the Dorchester District Court, which continues to offer less punitive probationary sentences to individuals who participate in a ten-week literature course. In his work with the Changing Lives through Literature program, Taylor took many cues from Goodman who argues in Growing Up Absurd that society should take responsibility for the wellbeing of its youth.[2] First and foremost, Goodman insisted, young people need a meaningful culture and a community in which to develop. Taylor offered his students an opportunity to gain insight into their culture through the stories, poems, and essays up for discussion; as a participant in those discussions, and in the lives of those he taught, he helped to form a much-needed community.

In 2011, Taylor published Changing Lives (Paradigm Press), a memoir describing his work with probationers and the ideas and principles—radical by comparison to the standards of the present-day American prison system—that guided that work. Shortly after its publication, Taylor described to me a new book he was setting out to write: “it will be memoir/biography/social history/prophecy,” he explained. “Working title: Unfinished Revolutions: Paul Goodman and the Sixties.”

At eighty-one years old, Taylor was retired from teaching and living alone in a cabin in western Massachusetts. Despite what would seem like isolation from his community and his work, he continued to give serious thought to Goodman’s ideas for radical social change. “I've only just begun, but I have hopes for it,” he wrote of his book-to-be. Taylor’s hopes centered on revising Goodman’s list of unfinished revolutions as laid out in Growing Up Absurd. Tracing these revolutions to the present day, he hoped to discover why they had stagnated, and to use Goodman's ideas, and his own experiences, to suggest ways forward.

According to Goodman, the success or failure of a revolution, whatever its end goals, has serious implications for a society. By his own definitions, “a successful revolution establishes a new community. A missed revolution makes irrelevant the community that persists. And a compromised revolution tends to shatter the community that was, without an adequate substitute.”[3] For instance, Taylor saw the problem of the U.S. prison system as closely tied to the problem of racial inequality, which persists despite the social movements set in motion by civil rights. He was dismayed, as he explained Goodman would have been, by the dearth of mass demonstrations in the face of growing social inequalities. At the same time, he wondered whether such a form of protest could still take place. In his book he planned to meditate on what Goodman might have to say about the current state of the revolutions he supported, and in some cases helped begin.

I was disappointed when in the early summer of 2013 Taylor told me that he was not up to writing the book. He was just too tired, he said. So I suggested a compromise. In June, I headed north to his cabin in Otis, Massachusetts, and there, over the course of a weekend, we recorded several conversations around the topic of unfinished revolutions. My intention was to gather the ideas that would have comprised Taylor’s final book. The following transcript is a distillation of a much longer conversation, edited to reflect the ideas of a book-once-in-progress. 

It took only a few months for the cause of Taylor’s exhaustion, an advanced form of leukemia, to take his life. And while for many of us his loss has proved disorienting, his ideas continue to provide a needed sense of direction. Lately I find myself wondering over and repeating Dennison’s expression. Like his good friend Goodman, Taylor is indeed an “angel of mind.” His words, like his friendship, offer us a steady course to “a much-loved home.”

—Elizabeth Murphy

Stoehr, June, 2013

What would Goodman say today? And what do we do about all of the unfinished revolutions on his list?[4] They are all monolithic. They are the revolutions of modernism—you can tie almost any one of them to something in the modernist upheaval, from just before the First World War to the mid thirties. Some were reactions to a war that hadn’t yet started, and then the First World War confirmed those movements.

What led Goodman to write Growing Up Absurd was a conversation he had with a bunch of teenagers on the beach in Hamilton, Ontario. He asked them what their hopes for the future were, and they had none. He was so saddened by that. It stuck with him. Rereading it, I realized that the whole book is focused on the youth heading for prison. That is to say, it’s about the juvenile delinquent, whom he saw as an outcast. In a sense his guiding question was, How can a person who wants to be a member of the society grow up to that society if the jobs they are doing are not meaningful? A lot of jobs exist just to hold the system together. They don’t have anything to do with eating or having a place to live. Today it’s much harder to imagine a job you want to do. This is one of the direct causes of the creation of an underclass. If you can’t fit into the society that there is, then there’s no place for you.  If there’s no community, then what are you called to?

I think the best chapter in this book is the chapter on patriotism.[5] He was very serious about that. A lot of the problems he’s looking at are problems of a perversion of patriotism. It’s certainly true for our wars and our racism. But it also has something to do, I think, with the gang fights, the turf wars: there was something real about that. The gang members he writes about thought they were knights in armor—but at least they understood that you had to have something to identify with, something that you believe in. The trouble was that something was so thin.

Today the prisons are an institutional burden and a disaster for the whole culture—not just the people who are in them. That’s one reason why someone needs to revise this list. For instance, we must take into account the way that the youth culture has developed. The gangs have become rival entrepreneurs of drugs, and the violence has increased, partly because of the weapons. We still have the gangs, but they have different motives, different turfs, different weapons. The youth on the streets today, all they have is rough-and-ready comradeship, like Middle Ages knights on their way to the crusades. People are in danger on the streets because the young have nothing to live for. Once they go to prison, sometimes they grow out of that. But prison is a place that tends to reinforce those feelings, too.

Working with probationers, I found that the most important thing to them, they thought, was respect. I heard so many speeches about that. In our group meetings people were called to respect each other by probation officers, but by each other too. My feeling is, when you’re down to that—when the key is whether or not you’re being respected or disrespected, you face a poverty of values that is desperate. It’s like saying, “I’m not even a person, that’s what you’re saying to me?” And I do think that is what the culture is saying to these people. That’s part of the racism. But it’s also a result of the way that “respectable” people treat those who are down and out, people sick or in misery on the street. For all the underclasses, “disrespect” is another way of saying “swept-under-rug,” “not-existing,” “not-a-person.” You can see it every day in a city. 

When Goodman first talked about prisons, it was toward the end of the Second World War, when he got drafted. He thought he was going to go to prison, and that crept into the things he wrote about: war and social action.[6] Then he got declared III-A.[7] They thought he was not military material. And they were right. It’s remarkable, given that he was out queer from the time he was twenty-one, and living in New York City, that he never got arrested. I don’t think it was an accident. I think he was afraid of jail. He had a deep-seated fear of all total institutions. That was part of his reaction to schooling and the institutional society generally.

In the sixties he was designated as an education specialist.[8] He had already written one book on colleges and it was kind of a guideline for the youth movement.[9] Compulsory Mis-education came out in 1964.[10] After a while, his ideas about education became common sense for people who wanted to do something other than the lock-step schooling. For instance, Growing Up Absurd was inspiration for the First Street School that Mabel Dennison started, and that her husband George wrote up in The Lives of Children.[11] But the revolution of progressive education kind of faded. The beginning of the end was in the late fifties when there was growing anxiety that the Russians were going to beat us to the moon. Science became a big deal. It had to be rigorous. It was the beginning of the mindset behind No Child Left Behind, and the MCAS, and all of that.[12]

Today, most free schools have solidified as institutions. To some degree they’re still good schools, but they’ve sort of hardened. They’re not experimental anymore. I don’t think any of them take kids out of school and into the streets to use the city to teach, which was one of Goodman’s main suggestions and which was done in the First Street School. Instead, most education is determined by the problem of discipline in schools. How do you make people do homework? How do you make people be there in a way that you can control them? Most of the paraphernalia of school is just to keep people in line. That’s good training for the job market. It’s very close to prison, because there’s so much make-work in it. But if you see kids who aren’t trained that way, and you see how lit up they are most of the time, that’s a lesson, too.

The whole idea of the perfect liberal education is no longer the classics, it’s knowing something about computers. It’s having all your rough edges rubbed off so that you’ll fit in your next job when you move, or when they move you.[13] Today, when kids are baffled by what the teacher is telling them, it’s because they haven’t got a framework to put it in, it doesn’t relate to anything in their world. To learn something about your culture you need some basis in your actual experience. Goodman used to like to quote a study that said the average ten-year-old boy in Harlem had never been more than three blocks away from home. But that didn’t mean that boy had a neighborhood. It just meant he had no experience of nature, or of how food comes to exist, for example. Such a circumstance kills the sense that, as human beings, every one of us ought to have: a sense of confidence in ourselves that we will be able to survive without services—that we could do what needed to be done.

There’s an important difference between experience and information. The schools teach mostly information. And information is great. But it’s not experience—it never gets to the heart, and it never gets in your bones. The culture goes dead without nature in it.

Goodman was particularly bothered by the sociologists. In his period, sociology was where the postmodern ideas of socially constructed belief and behavior were located. Sociologists, he thought, forgot the human being and just looked at statistics. Data and statistics are important. They’re one way of trying to assess what the world is. But if you neglect other factors, you deny the existence of human nature. I think Goodman was right that there’s a human nature that is permanent. Maybe human nature has changed over the last 100,000 years; but not over the last 2,000 years, and probably not over the last 10,000. Real change—that is, spiritual or human change—is very slow.

But the culture, on the other hand, has changed very fast. Technology (which is the culture) has been developing at such a rate that no human evolution can keep up with it. So we don’t know how to deal with the new weapons, with the new mobility, with the new communications. Goodman wrote a short story in 1935 called “The Boy Scouts of Westhampton,” in which a scoutmaster is trying to teach the young boys of his troop the practical relations of material life.[14] There’s a rival organization playing with toy war airplanes and carrying toy guns. The scoutmaster doesn’t approve of these things—not because they’re warlike, but because they’re not real. And because they aren’t real, nobody learns the horrific effect of that kind of weaponry.

One of the aspects of technology that concerned him was the way that decisions about applying science never had a moral aspect. Instead, the question was, what can you sell? If you’ve got a scientific discovery, how can you turn it into money? It’s like a solution looking for a problem. And the problem usually had to be invented. During the time right before he wrote this book, the interstate highway was created—an Eisenhower creation and the death knell for the railroads. All the road building was part of the boom of the sixties. You can use more oil if you have a system of roads, for which you need concrete—and then you can sell more cars. And that, in turn, destroys neighborhoods and encourages the movement in education where people are not fitted for trades and careers, but for being interchangeable parts in huge machines.

His next book was called Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals.[15] He loved to invent what he called dumb-bunny schemes for fixing a problem. He used to say, “It’s not that I think this should be instituted... ” Although he usually thought that it could be. He once tried to put all the orphans together with all the little old ladies in the country—that kind of thing. The whole idea of these practical proposals was to give people a sense that they could do something. Because people had accepted that nothing could be done. In other words, the point was to demonstrate that utopianism wasn’t unrealistic. According to Goodman, when you come at a problem, you come at it with your whole being and with a sense of working with other people. All of his work inculcated a particular attitude toward yourself, your society, and what can be done. Goodman kept saying, “Anarchism is not a program; it’s not a set of principles; it’s not a dogma. It’s an attitude.” There are certain values that he thought a person needed to grow up with. It’s not that you learn a scheme or a way to handle things, it’s that you have what he called “the habit of freedom.”[16]

For Goodman, culture is historical as well as immediate. When you’re in a society that doesn’t have much tradition left, and so seems more and more rigid and oppressive, then you’re thrown back on yourself. There’s nowhere else to go. But when you finally find (if you do) some crusade that you can believe in—well, then you get something explosive, like civil rights. That was the big miracle of our times. And it was extraordinary.

The power of nonviolence, which Gandhi exemplified and proved, and King did again, is very great; but it doesn’t work everywhere. In some ways, Goodman was a Gandhian. He thought that nonviolence was the only possible position. But he was not personally nonviolent. That is, he thought sometimes a sock in the jaw was a good thing. And there’s a whole thread of anarchism that is not nonviolent or pacifist, but is antimilitarist. For example, a lot of anarchists went and fought in the Spanish Civil War. So they weren’t pacifists. They believed it was a “just war.” And the non-militarists in the group wouldn’t fight, because they believed that the scale of war is indefensible, that it’s a form of mass murder that’s sanctioned by the state. So that’s one concern of that revolution: defining what pacifism is.[17] Another concern is how to educate for pacifism. One way is by example. During the civil rights movement, especially in Birmingham, you saw the police and the dogs and the fire hoses turned against little kids. You saw it on TV, in front of your eyes. That’s an education for pacifism.[18]

I live my life hoping that something will happen—like the Occupy movement—but also not having much faith in those movements. The sixties taught us first of all that we could make mass demonstrations, and second that they wouldn’t work forever. The government has figured out lots of ways of resisting demonstrations—corralling them, coopting them—so they don’t work anymore.[19] On the other hand, sometimes they do. I know that the most important thing you can do is something that’s meaningful where you’re at. And then you have to trust that there are other people in the world who are doing that, too. Our job is to prepare for that as best we can. And that’s why I believe in the anarchist attitude.

The last book that Goodman published before he died was called The New Reformation.[20] He had a conception of what the youth movement was about and he saw it as a parallel to what the Reformation had been: the discovery of individual power rather than group power. The youth movement was a spiritual calling in the absence of a truly spiritual model. Now we’re at the point where everybody feels a desperate lack of faith. And everywhere in the world there are attempts to make it up. But you can’t live without spiritual meaning or faith—you have to believe that there’s something more.

I know young people who are full of a kind of faith looking for its object. It’s pretty hard to find, given the state of the larger world. It’s hard not to be pretty pessimistic. And most people are in fact cynical about it all—cynicism is the next step before despair! But when you meet someone who’s found something to believe in—they are lit up. They’re illuminated!

[1] George Dennison, “In Memory of Paul Goodman,” New York Review of Books. 13 Dec 1973.

[2] Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd. New York: NYRB Classics, 2012).

[3] Growing Up Absurd, 195.

[4] In his introduction to Growing Up Absurd, Goodman wrote, “I shall later list more than twenty fundamental liberal demands that have gone unfulfilled which would still be live and salutary issues today if anybody wanted to push them” (23). Taylor’s planned to push these issues by updating Goodman’s list to reflect the issues most salient to today’s society, and specifically to its young. Of Goodman’s unfinished revolutions (circa 1956) Taylor’s revised list would likely have included: technocracy, urbanism and urban planning, syndicalism, class struggle, production for use, sociology, democracy, agrarianism, fraternity and the brotherhood of races, pacifism, Reformation (“vocation as a community function”), modern science, abolishment of child labor and compulsory education in favor of progressive education and what Goodman termed “permissiveness.” For a complete and annotated list of Goodman’s unfinished revolutions, see chapter XI of Growing Up Absurd, “The Missing Community” (194-211). The most pressing revolutions, Taylor felt, revolved on racial inequality and the prison problem.

[5] According to Goodman, patriotism is our “first culture,” by which he meant that we acquire, as children, a sense of belonging. Without it, “we come with a fatal emptiness to the humane culture of science, art, humanity and God.” (92) The most serious result of this lack, in his view, is a feeling of alienation that leads to destructive behaviors.

[6] Goodman’s pacifism aligned him with other conscientious objectors of the Second World War, all of whom risked serving time in prison or in work camps.

[7] III-A is a military classification for those deferred from the draft because of dependents.

[8] Before being appointed as an education specialist, Goodman taught in at least three different alternative school environments. First he taught at the University of Chicago, which was doing the Great Books Program—a movement away from discipline-specific study in university education that emphasized the Western liberal arts tradition, an interdisciplinary approach, and smaller classes that included open discussions. Next, he taught at the Manumit School, a left-wing private school in upper New York State. He also taught for a summer at Black Mountain College, another form of college alternatives. According to Taylor, “All three of those places fired him because he wouldn’t promise to be good.”

[9] Goodman’s book on colleges, a “guideline for the youth movement,” is The Community of Scholars (New York: Random House, 1962).

[10] Compulsory Mis-Education (New York: Horizon Press, 1964).

[11] Between 1964 and 1966, the First Street School, an experimental school started by Mabel Dennison in New York’s Lower East Side, served some of the city’s poorest children, including those who were rejected from the public school system. The project is described in detail in George Dennison’s The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School (New York: Random House, 1969).

[12] As part of the Education Reform Law of 1993, and now closely tied to the objectives of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) holds all Massachusetts public schools accountable for administering yearly tests in reading and mathematics, by which the performance of students, teachers, and schools are measured.

[13] In his introduction to Growing Up Absurd, Goodman explains how it is that, in “highly organized industrial systems,” social science is used “to fit people wherever they are needed in the productive system; and whenever the products of the system need to be used up, the practice is, by advertising, to get people to consume them.” 14.

[14] For Goodman’s story, with a foreword by Taylor, see Radical Teacher (1 August 2006), 24-32.

[15] Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (New York: Vintage, 1952).

[16] In Goodman’s short story “The Boy Scouts of Westhampton,” referenced here and elsewhere in this issue, the scoutmaster (a character he based on himself) defines the habit of freedom for his scouts this way: “activity […] where we are adequate to the problem—the material, the tools, and the art; actively absorbed, yet free.” 25.

[17] In “The Missing Community,” under the subheading “Pacifism,” Goodman writes, simply, “This revolution has been entirely missed.” Taylor’s explanation is an attempt to explain Goodman’s exasperation with the failure of a larger movement for pacifism during the fifties and sixties.

[18] In his essay, “Designing Pacifist Films,” Goodman pointed out that a lot of purported pacifist films were actually full of violence. You were supposed to abhor that violence as you watched it, but Goodman felt the films stirred violent emotions in people, and that they would do better to present facts and not push people into taking sides. The danger, he felt, was that the revenge motif was just as strong as the aggressive motif.

[19] For further discussion of governments’ coopting of mass demonstrations, beginning with the First World War, see “Marches of Nations,” an essay by G.K. Peatling and Elizabeth Murphy, in the current issue of this magazine.

[20] The New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (New York: Random House, 1970).