On the Syllabus: The Survival of a Counterculture

The book I've been reading this week for my thesis research, The Survival of a Counterculture: Ideological Work and Everyday Life Among Rural Communards, by Bennet M. Berger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) was a find on the Brookline Booksmith $1 cart by Hanna while I was on vacation visiting family (thank you H, for thinking of me!). Even though it was published the year I was born, and written by a sociologist rather than an historian, I am still finding a lot of really good observations and theoretical musings that help me clarify my thinking about the interaction of philosophy and practice in human communities.

Berger set out to study the place of children within "hippie" communes, and although his observations range far and wide in this particular book -- not focusing on children to the exclusion of other aspects of commune life, he still spends a good deal of time describing adult interactions with young people. The following excerpt is from his third chapter, "Communal Children: Equalitarianism and the Decline of Age-grading."

In treating the history of the concept of childhood, social scientists have emphasized the differences between [the pre-industrial] status of children . . . where they are regarded simply as small or inadequate versions of their parents, totally subject to traditional or otherwise arbitrary parental authority . . . [and on the other hand] the modern, industrial, middle-class view of children [in which] children are increasingly treated as members of a distinctive social category, their social participation . . . increasingly limited to age-homogeneous groups.

. . .

The prevalent view of children at The Ranch (and other communes like it) fits neither of these models exactly. Rather than being members of an autonomous category of "children" or being inadequate versions of their parents, legitimately subject to their arbitrary authority, children and young people (or "small persons," as they are sometimes deliberately, perhaps preciously, called) are primarily regarded as "persons," members of the communal family, just like anyone else -- not necessarily less wise, perhaps less competent, but recognized primarily, as my colleague Bruce Hackett put it, "by lowering one's line of vision rather than one's level of discourse."

Berger's later descriptions of adult-child interactions at The Ranch illuminate and refine this general philosophical approach to understanding young people in the context of the communal structure -- obviously there are nuances to each portion of this description (how is the "less competent" aspect dealt with? what does it mean for children to be seen as potential sources of wisdom?). But I was struck by the re-orientation necessarily in a community where this is the starting point for adult-child interaction, rather than one of the first two positions described (and in our modern American society, the modern, industrial, middle-class ideal dominates, whether or not it is upheld religiously in daily practice). What would it be like to interact with kids primarily "by lowering one's line of vision rather than one's level of discourse"?


  1. My parents managed to do that fairly well. My sister and I were brought to various grown-up house parties and got to chat with adults about computers and culture and stuff. And of course, we had been prepared for that by conversations among the family.

    I lived with one of those friends for a year, and it was more like having a cool older roommate than a stand-in parent.

    I probably should credit their attitudes when I was young with creating the relationship we have now, where we can talk about everything - and the fact that I feel like and be a reasonably functional adult at 21. I can feel autonomous without feeling like I was thrown out to fend for myself.

  2. Thanks for the comment, sofiaviolet!

    (I see from your journal you're doing Nano too; best of luck on that word count!)

    I would totally agree with you that they respect my parents gave me as a small person when I was younger really encouraged me to see them as mentors I could talk to (as adults with more life experience) but not parents I had to rebel against in order to be an adult. And I also like the way you phrased this: "I can feel autonomous without feeling like I was thrown out to fend for myself." For me, the transition from child to adult was so gradual and based on my abilities that although the world can sometimes feel like a terrifying place, I don't feel like I was abandoned to it at some arbitrary age-delimited threshold of "adulthood."

    Hooray for awesome parents! I'm always glad to hear other people in the world have had a similar experience.