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The Lonely Student: 
The Lesson of The Lonely Crowd
by David Riesman, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. Abridged edition with a 1969 preface. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961

by Dr. Ed Vavra

     I decided to read The Lonely Crowd simply because I had seen it referred to several times in my other reading. Someone should have brought it to my attention years ago. Unfortunately, there is no canon for books on sociology and history comparable to The Western Canon for literature by Harold Bloom. As a result, many superbly nutritious books inhabit primarily the lonely shelves of our increasingly lonely (book) libraries. Among other things, Riesman's ideas may explain why this has happened.
     In his second preface, he refers to "The loss of inner confidence among adults as a worldwide phenomenon." The book develops this idea by exploring three stages of societies--the "traditional," the "inner-directed," and the "outer-directed." The "traditional" are basically small societies that share a common set of values. Within such a society, only this set of values is known. Children grow up imbibing the beliefs and values of their parents. The very idea of questioning these values is either unknown or automatically rejected. The old ways are the good ways, and the aged are revered.
     As societies became larger, there was more communication among them. People became aware of the values of other societies. Slowly, the values of these other societies seeped into the consciousness of a society. New possibilities, new ways of determining what is good and what is bad. Questions arose, at first to be automatically rejected, but little by little to be considered. Generational differences appeared as the young began to question their elders. The elders, of course, stood fast, but change was inevitable. But the younger generations could not be as certain of their values as were the older ones--they had more than one option. As I understand him, Riesman sees this as a shift to "inner-directed" societies. 
     Long before reading The Lonely Crowd, I often gave my students an explanation that Riesman would probably consider an example of this. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg--and unintentionally started the Protestant Reformation. For over a thousand years before this, almost everyone in Europe was Roman Catholic. They all shard the same "traditional" belief system. True, there were people who questioned, but they either kept quiet or were burned at the stake.
     The Protestant Reformation, of course, led many people to split from the Catholic Church and to form new denominations. Instead of one set of accepted values, there were now many. How people picked a denomination is a complicated question, but clearly, having picked, they wanted their children to grow up in the same denomination--with the same set of beliefs. But as society and the means of communication continued to grow, many children learned about (and had friends who believed in) different denominations. Obviously, many children began to think about this--they were in a situation that those living in a "traditional" society never had to experience.
     Advances in technology, in this case especially Gutenberg's printing press, had a major role in this. People in different denominations could now both share ideas and receive psychological support from people living thousands of miles away from them.
     For Riesman, in an "inner-directed" society, parents are still the primary source of values. Most responsible parents try to instill their values into their children, and most children, historically, have accepted those values. As Riesman puts it:

parents who are themselves inner-directed install a psychological gyroscope in their child and set it going; it is built to their own and other authoritative specifications . . . .
Riesman was a sociologist, so what he might have wanted us to picture is millions of gyroscopes installed in children. To extend my own example, we might say that most of those gyroscopes were set to denominational specifications--Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, etc.
     As I understand him, the implication of Riesman's theory is that over dozens (or hundreds) of generations, many of those gyroscopes weakened. Many children coming into contact with children with different gyroscopes became, little by little, less and certain of the validity of their own values. (Then too, there were the parents with no values with which to install a gyroscope.) For Riesman, this led to a crucial turning point and the development of the "outer-directed" societies.
     In "outer-directed" societies, the gyroscopes of the majority of the population have stopped turning. Most parents have become very uncertain of their own values. As a result, they install a very weak (or no) gyroscope in their children. But an implication of Riesman's argument is that everybody not only needs, but WANTS a gyroscope. Everyone wants a set of moral values. This is, of course, another complicated question, but Riesman simply points to where most young adults currently get their values--their peers. For the majority of our young people, parental and other adult authorities are simply irrelevant.
    For me, Riesman has clarified something I have noted during my 35 years of college teaching, and especially over the last ten. Many students are losing a sense of their parents' values. I'll give three examples.
     For many years I have used the debate about a law against burning the United States flag to introduce students to the question of "issues." This could be an entire separate essay, but the important point here is that I begin by asking the class for a show of hands--Who is for and who is against such a law? A dozen years ago, 90% of the class would raise their hands in favor of such a law. Not only that--they started shouting out arguments! Two or three students would meekly raise their hand for being against such a law. The remainder were not sure. Now, when I ask that question, four or five hands will rise for a law, four or five against, and the rest have no opinion. In other words, not only are there more students with no opinion, but given where I live, I know that fewer of today's students are reflecting their parents' opinion on this issue.
     The second example comes from my literature sections. For me, literature has always been about the meaning of life and human values. Not all of the literature we read is religious, but over the years, fewer and fewer students can even recognize basic Christian beliefs and symbols.
     The last example strikes directly to Riesman's theory. A student who was not doing well in the course came in to see me. He had been participating in class, and what he said there indicated that he should have been able to pass the course with little trouble. The problem was that he was not doing much homework. He noted that he really wanted to pass--his father would be very angry if he did not. He told me quite sincerely that every day after classes he went back to his dorm to do his homework. But when he got there, his friends always wanted to go out partying--and he would end up going with them. Peer values overpower the gyroscope installed by parent. I am neither a psychologist or a sociologist, but the result of our "outer-directed" society is exactly what Riesman predicted--a growing number of undirected and lonely students. The saddest are those with hundreds of Facebook friends and few, if any, real ones.
     Riesman concludes his book with an explanation of the "autonomous" society that he hopes will develop. I confess to not understanding it. For me, the primary lesson of The Lonely Crowd is that the majority of adults in our society have given up on installing gyroscopes, and, most important for my topic, they have given up on installing social and educational gyroscopes. Parent-installed gyroscopes are important, but Riesman's argument demonstrates that in an "outer-directed" society like ours, these are insufficient. Students are not only bombarded by millions of counter-values on television, and now even more on the internet.
     Perhaps our biggest problem is that most members of our society have not learned how to intelligently and courteously disagree. This has led us to an "I'm O.K..; you're O.K." society. This little slogan is our way of avoiding serious debates about values. Indeed, we cover up and kill debate with a variety of slogans, another being that everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. This one is usually used to end, rather than to begin, any serious discussion.
     My primary interest, of course, is our educational system, but we cannot leave that system to our educators. Way back in 1961, Riesman explained how in an "outer-directed" society, teachers are trained to believe that education is about socialization, not academics. As a result, even many teachers don't care about academics. (64) Personally, I don't blame the teachers. The problem is the system--our educational system reflects our outer-directed social system.
     Put differently, the highest (directing) levels of our educational system have no confidence in their beliefs about what should be taught at various grade levels. We can see this most easily by charades played by individual states and the Common Core project in setting "standards." They use the word "standards" because, as noted above, most people do want standards--they are just confused about what many of those standards should be.
     The Common Core State State Standards Initiative really requires an essay to itself, but you can check it out for yourself at http://www.corestandards.org/. If you look through some of the confusing and repetitive "standards" and know the difference between a "standard" and an "objective," you will probably agree that everything in the documents is an objective, not a measurable standard. (And some of them are inane; others insane.) I doubt that anyone would object to any of the stated objectives, but what, exactly, do they mean? Yes, every ninth grader should be able to write correct sentences. But does that mean that a single in-correct sentence will result in failure? How are teachers supposed to teach to these standards? The whole thing is a farce, and it is a farce because either the writers don't know what the standards should be, or they don't really care.
     If you still have any doubts, look at the FAQ page. There you will learn that:
The Common Core State Standards are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. 
If these were really serious standards, they should specifically note that students, by the time they graduate from high school, should be able to catch the sleight-of-hand from "Standards" to "goals and expectations." (I also love that misuse of the word "clear,") Note also, that these expensively developed "standards" pass the buck for assessment to the states. Why are state Departments of Education agreeing to participate in this nonsense? The reason is simple: they do not know what they are doing either, and, being "outer-directed" they are banding together with their peers to cover their ignorance.
     Educational standards are, of course, a topic for a different book, but here I simply want to suggest that "clear" assessable standards are possible. The questions are whether or not the public will demand them and whether or not the public will put the effort into helping create them. A simple example would be reading levels. For example, "all students entering eighth grade must be reading at at least a seventh grade level." (Currently, there are students who have graduated from high school and are entering college with a fifth grade reading level.)
     I'm posing my example as one that could be discussed and debated by both teachers and the public. The standard might end up being that students could enter eighth grade with a sixth grade reading level. Note that there are no political or religious questions related to this standard--as there have been with standards about history and science. But think about what it means to the students, to the teacher, and to the rest of the class when there are students in an eighth grade class who are not reading at an eighth grade level. The latter students will have serious problems understanding the material, or, what often happens, the material will be dumbed down so that the weaker students might (hopefully) get it. Meanwhile, the teacher goes nuts because she also has students in the class who are reading at the tenth or even the twelfth grade level.
     I hope to address the question of specific standards in another essay, but the point of this one is to suggest how Riesman's ideas help us understand why the "debate" about standards is creating multi-million dollar messes. (I used the "us" intentionally. As most of us writing instructors say, "Writing is thinking." As I wrote this, I had to clarify many of the ideas in my own mind.) There is, I should note, much more food for thought in The Lonely Crowd. Riesman, for example, ties his last two types to economics. "Inner-directed" societies have a "scarcity" economy -- or at least the psychology of a scarcity economy. "Outer-directed" societies are associated with economies of abundance. That rang a bell for me because I remember reading about a philosopher who made the same distinction for a similar point. The only difference is that, for the first time in history, we are now living in an abundance economy.
   By "abundance economy" both writers meant an economy that can produce sufficient goods and services to meet the needs (if not all the desires) of all of its members. The United States can now either manufacture or import enough to do so. Our problem is no longer one of production--it is a problem of distribution. I had my students read and discuss Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. It describes a Christian socialist utopia in which everyone retires at age 45. To my surprise, none of the students questioned the socialism. (I told you that students are losing those parentally installed gyroscopes.) What bothered most of the students was "What would people do after they retire?" It is an angst that Riesman foresaw. He discusses "fears that without work we would be lost" (270) and fear of "the dangerous avalanche of leisure that is coming down on the Americans." (295)
    I have taken your time to note this here both because my students illustrated this fear and because it is directly related to another aspect of our educational system (which itself is constantly looking backward). We do not have enough jobs, and I do not care who is elected president, we still will not have enough jobs unless we rethink what we are doing in education.
     Why? Why are so many schools cutting back on classes in music and art? Yes there is a budget crunch, but our schools are still intent on turning out students for yesterday's jobs--jobs that will never again be there in sufficient number to gainfully employ all the graduates. (Alvin Toffler told us that in Future Shock back in 1970.)
    Instead of cutting back on classes in music, art, (and literature), we should be increasing them--for two reasons. First, and for most people most important, those are the areas in which many of the future jobs will be. Second, people who have had a decent education in the arts will never ask the question about what people would do after they retire. They will patronize the arts, locally, nationally, perhaps internationally, and on the web. In addition, all of the arts lead into the questions of history, politics, and general culture. In other words, people who have had an education in the arts will be involved in the world and its problems.
     Read The Lonely Crowd. It is thought-provoking. More importantly, fight for clear, assessable academic standards--standards that almost any parent can make sense of.