Flash in the Pan

Scanning the shelves for something to read while I ate supper, I pulled out Psychology and the Human Dilemma by Rollo May. Insights are to be gleaned — May’s brief critique of both Skinner and Rogers is viable — but it’s not hard to detect a sort of old-fashioned aura that hovers over the text.

The book was published in 1967, so he was writing it in ’65 or ’66. In Chapter 2, “Modern Man’s Loss of Significance,” he makes much of the Free Speech Movement, which erupted on the UC Berkeley campus in 1964. He quotes Mario Savio.

Does anybody remember Mario Savio today, or what it was that triggered the uprising? It seems not very likely. Yet to Dr. May, “The upshot of all this is a new and highly important form of the battle for human values against the sophisticated mechanical Moloch of education which threatens to devour what is most precious to each one of us, our imagination and our consciousness itself. It is indeed interesting that in this battle the moral demand and cry comes from the students and not the faculty!” [Italics and exclamation point in the original.]

A few years after that, Tower of Power had a hit with a song called “What Is Hip?” The line I remember is, “What’s hip today may become passé.” It’s easy to take pundits like Rollo May too seriously during the years when they’re strutting their stuff upon the stage. At the time they may seem to have found an eternal truth in the week’s headlines. Fifty years later, maybe not so much.

In any event, whatever happened at Berkley in 1964, or in San Francisco in 1967 (the “Summer of Love”), no longer matters. The controversies on campus today, at Berkeley and elsewhere, are at times just as heated, but they’re entirely different. And fifty years from now nobody will view today’s collegiate contretemps as cultural, moral, or philosophical turning points. As Jean-Baptiste Karr noted, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, if you prefer David Byrne, “Same as it ever was.”

It’s not clear to me, by the way, what May sees as “the human dilemma.” It’s something to do with objectivity vs. subjectivity. I suspect this type of binary, dualistic thinking was more in fashion among thinkers of his era (he was born in 1909) than it is today. I’ve also been reading bits of Alan Watts’s book Nature, Man, and Woman, which was published in 1958. Watts seems to have aged better than May. Perhaps it’s because he avoids dualisms.

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