Reflections from the Class of 1957, half a century after essays drew attention to the values of a generation

By the time the Princeton Class of 1957 arrived on campus late in the summer of 1953, they already had been saddled with a dismal label. They were a part of what Timemagazine had called the “silent generation,” a group distinguished only by its willingness to settle for bland security. “Youth’s ambitions have shrunk,” Time announced. “Few youngsters today want to mine diamonds in South Africa, ranch in Paraguay, climb Mount Everest, find a cure for cancer, sail around the world, or build an industrial empire. Some would like to own a small, independent business, but most want a good job with a big firm, and with it, a kind of suburban idyll.”

The Class of ’57 came along in the middle of this generation, right in its soft, complacent belly. You didn’t have to go all the way back to swashbuckling adventurers like Teddy Roosevelt to find examples to shame them. You only had to look at their own fathers and older brothers, the brave GIs who had saved the world by defeating the Nazis in World War II. Many on the Princeton faculty in the mid-1950s shared this low opinion of their students and did not hesitate to tell them so.

One who disagreed was a young politics professor named Otto Butz. He thought the characterization was just plain wrong. The young men he was meeting in precepts were bright and seemed to be interested in the world, even if their power to do much about it was limited by the fact that they were still students. The subject came up painfully in January 1957, in a precept, when one of Butz’s students reported the disparaging comments he’d heard the night before at a party with faculty members. His story triggered a long, soul-searching discussion and gave Butz the idea for a book: Would his students be willing to write essays disproving the charge of indifference?

Butz himself was a fascinating fellow. In 1929, at the age of 5, he had emigrated with his family from Germany to Canada, where his unmistakably Teutonic name had made his life miserable at a time of rising tensions with Germany. But his experience of prejudice had given Butz — who Dean Determan ’57 recalls as “very hippie for the time” — an outsider’s fresh perspective and curiosity.

Butz spent the next few weeks seeking out students who he thought would write compelling essays. He enlisted a dozen and kept their identities secret, even from one another. They were a varied bunch, at least by Princeton standards — four Protestants, four Jews, and three Catholics (the 12th student dropped out due to illness) — and they came from a range of social classes and academic departments. Each was to write 15 to 25 pages addressing a variety of questions: What do you want out of life? What do you want to contribute? Has your background affected you in this? What do you think of happiness, success, security, God, education, marriage, family, and your own generation? How do you relate yourself to America’s future and the future of mankind in general? Butz urged the students to write honestly and made it easier for them to do so by promising them anonymity. He was confident that from this mix of voices there would emerge not only a portrait of a generation, but a portrait that was sympathetic and would disprove the rap against them.

The essays make for interesting reading. They mix autobiography with musings about class, bigotry, civic responsibility, the value of a Princeton education, and what seems to have been an almost universally mysterious subject: women. The single most popular theme is the students’ strong determination not to become just one more of the men in the gray flannel suits: “Society today is being pervaded by an insidious and consuming quality: regimentation,” begins “The Individual at Bay.” Several students mention losing their faith, while others write candidly about sex. Several discuss bicker and the eating clubs: “There is no room for the nondrinker, the silent introvert, or the man who spends so much time on studies that he neglects the social life ... .” Writing about racism and anti-Semitism, another student recalls sitting with three new acquaintances as one boasted “caustically of his psychological assaults upon two frail Jewish boys down the hall.” The essayist, Jewish himself, recalls: “My jolly acquaintance’s two friends roared with mirth at the telling of this anecdote. A weak, twisted smile crossed my face. Inside I felt fury battle with fear and a profound loneliness. What does a man do in a case like this?” The writer doesn’t say. Then there’s “The Third Eye,” the last and most adventuresome essay of the bunch, whose writer seems to take his cue from the science-fiction movies of the 1950s: “If I were to try to find some icon for my generation, I would look for a mythical creature with three eyes,” it announces. “We are the generation of the third eye, the eye of self-consciousness, the eye of self-criticism.”

Determan was one of Butz’s 11 essayists, though you’d have a hard time identifying him today from what he wrote in 1957. “I think I said that I wasn’t going to get married or at least that I’d wait until I was 35,” he says with a chuckle. “I was married before the book came out.” Like many of his fellow contributors, the young Determan sounds frighteningly sure of himself, like some sort of Nietzschean big man on campus. At one point in his essay, “Survival of the Fittest,” he writes, “I’m convinced that if you want to get anywhere in this world of dog-eat-dog, you have to be egotistical.” And later: “I would fight for my country, because in doing so I would be fighting for my own fulfillment.” The only thing he seems to fear is becoming a faceless bureaucrat.

In the end, though, Determan was anything but faceless. He has pursued a life of important service to others. After a stint in Turkey, where he used the Russian language skills he’d picked up at Princeton to work for NATO, Determan spent most of the ’60s as a lawyer for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He lobbied for passage of the Civil Rights Act and served as a federal monitor at the marches in Selma and Montgomery. “I felt like a knight on his white charger going into battle,” recalls Determan, who went on to oversee the desegregation of hospitals around the country. Today he is an administrative law judge in Florida.

“My counsel to anyone 21 years old is to be very careful what one puts in print,” advises another contributor, Jim Tappan ’57, who used his essay, “A Gentleman’s Son,” to describe a new type of American leader, whom he calls “America’s new liberals”: “The elite of the United States is not being determined either by family background or on the basis of inherited wealth,” he writes. “The new criteria, as I see it, are intelligence, good education, a sense of public responsibility, a deep-rooted commitment to Western civilization’s basic humanistic values, and a capacity for independent judgment.” In the essay, Tappan puts himself in this class. He went on to a long career in international management at Procter & Gamble and then General Foods, though he says his marriage and family have given him the greatest satisfaction. “What strikes me now is how basically immature I was in some regards,” he says. “Life and thoughts change.”

Whatever their success as prognosticators, all of Butz’s writers took the assignment seriously and wrote provocative essays. The editors at Rinehart, which published the collection in 1958, were so impressed by the quality of the prose that they insisted on seeing the original drafts, just to be sure that the students, and not Butz, had done the writing.

The Unsilent Generation caused quite a stir when it was published not long after the class had graduated, garnering reviews in a number of major publications, including The New York Times. Life magazine devoted 11 pages to excerpts in its Feb. 17, 1958, issue, with a cover billing that read: “Sharp Comments from College Seniors: The ‘Silent Generation’ Speaks.” There was excited talk of following up with a bookend volume 20 or 50 years down the road, though this never was done.

But according to Butz’s widow, Velia, not everyone was pleased with the book. Princeton administrators worried about the University’s reputation, especially since some of the essays appeared to justify the harsh criticism of Princeton as a spawning ground for Godless radicalism that had been made recently by the Rev. Hugh Halton, the controversial campus priest. Butz was condemned from the Princeton pulpit as an “agent of evil” and scolded for “poor University citizenship.”

The young professor was urged not to publish, Velia Butz says, but he went ahead with the book anyway. Butz chose to leave between terms, before his contract was up. He would go on to teach at San Francisco State University and then at Golden Gate College, where as president he oversaw its transition to full university status. He died on July 4, 2002, “a noble date for a noble man,” says Velia Butz. She is still surprised by the furor caused by her husband’s book. “Today, I don’t think that [The Unsilent Generation] would make a pipsqueak,” she says. “But at the time, it did.”

She’s right. Read today, those 11 essays seem neither racy nor radical, but thoughtful and sober. Here and there the tone grows a bit bombastic or pretentious. But for the most part they are the honest musings of bright and serious young men. The fact that they caused any grief at all underscores how much the world has changed in the last 50 years, though it would have taken an astonishingly prescient student to anticipate all that was waiting for him right around the corner, starting with the Kennedy assassination and gathering momentum throughout the 1960s.

Biographer Robert Caro ’57 believes that his class was among the last to spend its four years at Princeton in a world that was fundamentally different from the one we know today: “During the 50 years since our graduation, we walked through a watershed in American history,” Caro says. “A ‘watershed’ has a very specific meaning: It’s a mountain divide, and on one side of it the water runs in one direction, and on the other side the water runs in the other direction. Our college experience was on one side of that watershed, in a calm, prosperous America. Changes were coming, but we didn’t feel them. They were below the surface. So our college experience was in the sunny, calm America, and for a couple of years after we graduated — basically through the first years of the Kennedy presidency — that was still the America we were walking through. It all changed in the mid-’60s. We had Vietnam, we had the civil-rights revolution, and for the rest of our lives we’ve been walking through a totally different landscape.”

The Unsilent Generation is really a record of the calm before that storm. One thing worth noting is that Butz seems to have had a higher opinion of his students’ level of engagement than they did themselves. Speaking today, many allow that their interest in public affairs back then was largely passive. The silent generation was guilty as charged. “This could be one of the credos of the unsilent generation,” says Tappan. “[The Cold War] concerned me, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I was more concerned about doing well in school and going into the Navy and plotting my own career choices than I was about those things except as it related to the Middle East, where I knew I was headed in the service.”

“Silent or not, we weren’t inclined to rattle a lot of cages,” says Hodding Carter ’57. The Korean War had ended the summer the class came to Princeton, and communism, while worrisome, was still a fairly nebulous threat.

“It was a really strange, insulated period,” says Alan Tucker ’57. “We thought, ‘Everything is really fine and wonderful and great. Our futures are assured. We’re all just going to build an Arcadian future for America and the world now that World War II is over. Russia may be standing in our way, but we’ll solve that.’ I think there was a lot of small-‘c’ conservatism in our class, a sense of ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ ”

John Milton ’57, a man whose many careers have included Minnesota state legislator, CEO of a paper-products company, and novelist, says that he and his classmates “reflected what our parents thought they’d set up for us” after fighting World War II and establishing themselves at home. “They had high ambitions for what their children should do with their lives,” he says. “We could follow that path and do well. I think that was the mantra for us while we were there.”

At Princeton in the mid-’50s, it was hard to see beyond the boundaries of the campus. Nor was there really any incentive to look. “Princeton in those days was in many ways a hermetically sealed Nirvana,” says Harrison Goldin ’57. “I have a son in the Class of ’93 who finds it unbelievable that in four years I walked down Alexander Road one block to get a haircut and never went beyond that, and in the other direction, toward New York, I would go down to the old Garden Theater, maybe a half-block further. Princeton was self-contained, beautiful, bucolic, and the world seemed very far away.” Recalls Peter Paine, the class valedictorian: “The place was surrounded by farms. It had a sense of isolation to it. There were practically no minorities on campus.”

Nor were there women, of course, even if their absence was taken for granted by many students, including Tim Sherwood ’57. But when it dawned on Sherwood that there also were no black students in his class — and very few anywhere on campus — he sat down and wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian decrying this situation. When two weeks passed and the letter still hadn’t been published, he walked over to the newspaper offices and asked if his letter had not been worthy. It was, the editor said. But as a member himself of a recently accepted minority on campus — he was Jewish — he explained that he didn’t think he was in a position to rock the boat, Sherwood recalls. The letter never was published.

Even classmate Hodding Carter, who would become active in the civil-rights movement, remembers discussions in which it was agreed that desegregation was moving too fast. That, indeed, was the subject of a Whig-Clio debate.

What the Class of 1957 lacked was a channel for activism, or indeed any sense of what form such an impulse might take. Now, of course, when even high school students feel obliged to save the rainforest when they are not tutoring disabled children, it’s easy to forget that such activism was unheard of back then. That would come a decade or so later, as students learned they had the power to change things. The Class of 1957 couldn’t vote while at Princeton, and the Peace Corps would not exist until 1961. Quadrangle Club had the reputation of being the politically active club, but what did that really mean in 1957? “It meant that you admired Adlai Stevenson [’22] and [Michigan governor] Mennen Williams [’33] and people like that, who had been in Quad before,” says Goldin.

Occasionally the larger world did intrude. Thomas Kean ’57, who would become a popular New Jersey governor, remembers following the Suez Canal crisis on television at Campus Club with great interest. But he suspects that this was partly because the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said ’57 was the club president and called everyone’s attention to the issue. The crushed Hungarian revolution of 1956 caused concern. Bob Edwards ’57 recalls writing a poem about it, and when the Hungarian water polo team defected en masse following its bloody battle with the hated Russians at the 1956 Olympics, players were invited to stay at Elm Club and did so for a while. The 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi also stirred some debate, but when Ralph Schoenman ’57 circulated a petition condemning it, he found very few people willing to sign, even among the faculty. The only episode of unrest on campus was a gathering that briefly stopped traffic on Nassau Street. There was no political point to it, no real reason for it. “Basically it started because someone in our class thought we shouldn’t graduate without having one,” Kean recalls.

Schoenman probably was the one member of the class who came to Princeton as an activist. His classmates remember him as a communist, but he says he was actually a Marxist and socialist — a distinction that might not have meant much to his classmates. The son of Hungarian Jews, Schoenman had come to Princeton specifically to study with politics professor H.H. Wilson, whose work for the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee he’d admired from afar. He soon found that Wilson was hardly representative of the University community. “[Princeton] was a redoubt of the southern aristocracy,” says Schoenman. “The entire focus was on the club system. From my perspective, Princeton was a place where education was an embellishment.”

Schoenman’s leftist sympathies did not endear him to many other students. He found nooses on his door and heard fellow students chanting obscenities outside his windows. When others in his class went off to join the eating clubs, he headed to a rooming house down Witherspoon Street, on the edge of the black section of town. After leaving Princeton early to work on a salmon farm in Alaska, he became the private secretary to philosopher Bertrand Russell. He almost certainly is the only member of his class to have spent time in a Bolivian jail and pleading with Malcolm X to wear a bulletproof vest. He now hosts a radio show called “Taking Aim.” “Rightly or wrongly, Ralph was thinking about issues,” says Tucker.

That’s not to say that others in the Class of 1957 didn’t feel strongly about anything. They talked about bicker; most everyone participated, and the identities of the unfortunate few who had received no bids were well known. But there was no organized action taken, as the Class of ’52 had at least attempted. Though Caro wrote editorials in the Princedenouncing bicker, he says that his outrage over its cruelty did not translate into broader sympathy for oppressed people. “Did American foreign policy matter to me? Did black voting rights matter? I’m ashamed to say, not really. And I’d say that was true for an awful lot of the class.”

They worried about the draft. Some, like Kean, whose two older brothers had served in World War II, felt that service was an obligation. He did six months of basic training after graduation and feels strongly today that we’ve lost something by not having any shared national service. “You were thrown in with people who weren’t like you, people who came from urban and rural poverty,” says Kean. “It was a leveling experience. People grow up now without anything that brings them together with people who aren’t like them. That’s a harm for democracy.”

“[We] were very conscious of [the Cold War], but on the other hand we were students,” says Norman Augustine ’57 *59, who served as undersecretary of the Army under Presidents Nixon and Ford. “I hate to say it, but I was less conscious of the world around me during my years in college than in any period of my life — probably because I was so damn busy studying. ... If the object of college is to make you more aware of the world around you, it had exactly the opposite effect those four years. On the other hand it built a huge curiosity to learn, to travel, to see things. I think many of us more than made up for it in the years afterward.”

Indeed, a striking number of members of the Class of ’57 not only adapted to the world on the far side of the ’60s watershed, but played key roles in bringing it about — as civil-rights lawyers in the cases of Goldin and Determan; as journalists like Caro; as elected leaders like Kean; and as activists like Schoenman, Said, and Carter. Members of the Class of ’57 may not have spent their four years at Princeton plotting the changes they’d make, but when called upon, they served admirably.

“Part of the watershed was this awakening to the fact that the decisions of government — political power, if you will — shape all our lives every day,” says Caro, who went on to write Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of power brokers Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. “When that realization finally dawned on me, my understanding of what I wanted to do with my life changed.”

For Caro, the change came when, as a young reporter at Newsday, he began to see the hand of Robert Moses everywhere he looked. “Every bridge I drove over, every road I drove on, [Moses] had built them,” says Caro. “The basic underpinning of all political-science teaching was that in a democracy, power comes from the ballot box, from being elected. When I started working on Robert Moses, the first thing I learned is that he’d held power for 48 years. He had more power than any mayor or any governor — more than any mayor and governor combined. And I had no idea where he got this power. Neither did anybody else!” Caro quit his newspaper job and started researching the book that becameThe Power Broker.

Sherwood says that he felt “at home” when the 1960s rolled around, noting that he still has the Students for a Democratic Society card he got as a graduate student. Milton, with one eye on what his old friend Hodding Carter was doing in Mississippi, began marching and organizing in Minnesota. Today, he says, he is more progressive than ever.

The students justified Butz’s faith in them. “That, to some extent, is why I don’t regret the introverted, possibly even self-centered, four years at Princeton,” says Bob Edwards, who would go on to become president of first Carleton and then Bowdoin College. He has spent the last five years helping the University of Karachi expand from a medical school to a school of general studies. “Maybe this silent generation was investing, rather than merely self-obsessing.”