24 JANUARY 1964, Page 21

Taking it Seriously

FERDYNAND ZWEIG'S studies of contemporary British life are unpopular with many of our academic social scientists for the very qualities which recommend then to the wider public. He goes for the big new problems and tackles them single-handed without an army of interviewers and card-punchers. He avoids the sociologist's tiresome custom of waving his science in the reader's face or obtruding it between the reader and the subject-matter or between the data and the conclusions. Instead, Zweig has the knack of effacing both himself and his science, leaving the reader with a sense of being face to face with the interviewees and of participating in drawing the conclusions. At the end of his investigations, Dr. Zweig always has something interesting to say, whereas much of our sociological research ends by ponderous re-statement of the obvious. This was as true of his Productivity and the Trade Unions a decade ago (which questioned and found irrelevant many theoretical assumptions about the behaviour of 'labour' which economists had taken for granted) as of The Worker in the Affluent Society. The Student in the Age of Anxiety justi- fies expectations.

Students, like the younger generation in general, constitute a tempting focus for generali- sation and stereotype which stem partly from random impressions but also owe much to the adult public's unconscious emotional involve- ment of one kind or another. The current image owes something to television pictures of university contingents at CND rallies, to novels debunking post-war university life, to polemics over Rob- bins, and to the conviction that students are not a patch on what they were when we were up.

Zweig's students do not fit the old stereotype but mercifully do not create a new one in its place; different types and distinct individuals emerge. What they appear to have in common is first and foremost a serious attitude to their careers, at university and afterwards. They feel gratitude and a sense of privilege at being allowed to attend university; the feeling is strongest among first-generation students but has caught on among many who would earlier have taken their university education for granted. They are rarely rebels, and regard the few CND-ers among them rather as freaks.

If Dr. Zweig's sample is to be taken as typical, the students are not very political animals at all, and tend to be grouped around the centre, which- ever of the three parties they might opt for. As might have been expected, attitudes towards the working man are far friendlier, even sentimentally so, among many former public-school men at Oxford than among the grammar-school leavers at Manchester.

Young people struggling to rise out of a Working- or lower-middle-class environment are not inclined to romanticise the people and way Of life they are working hard to leave behind. Apart from a few committed Socialists whose faith in the working class is in the abstraction rather than the real people, they see the workers as dissolute, spendthrift, lazy, and irresponsible. At best, they achieve a paternalistically Fabian attitude, at the worst they are apprehensive and hostile. Their compassion and desire to help are directed more towards ' the underdeveloped countries, in an Oxfamish and voluntary-service rather than a political manner; this holds good for the Oxonians, too.

The scarcity of angry young men—'we've really nothing to be angry about'—comes as less of, a surprise than the abundance of devout and chaste young men and women. The majority of students—postgraduates included—declared their attachment to religion, more at Manchester than at Oxford, contrary to what one might have expected a generation or two ago. The over- whelming majority of interviewees at both uni- versities both frowned on pre-marital sexual relations on principle and abstained in practice. They justified their chastity partly on religious and ethical grounds, partly out of the considera- tion that early entanglement might endanger their career in one way or other: Their sincerity is not open to question; an experienced interviewer like Zweig can be trusted in a matter of this kind. Their attitude certainly contrasts with that of a substantial proportion of young people in their late teens and early twenties outside university; the numbers of young pregnant brides and unmarried teenage mothers and the spread of VD among young people point to that. Zweig ascribes the differences to the rising proportion of first-generation students among them, particularly those from working- or lower-middle-class families for whom a university education means the opportunity to rise out of a mean street into a bright new world. He suggests that if this continues—as seems likely from the reception of the Robbins Report—a new puritan solid middle-class intelligentsia may emerge, 'likely to strengthen the conservative forces in society—riot necessarily the Conservative Party, but the conservative element in all parties.'

His approbation for these worthy young people is tinged with misgivings. He found them too conscientious, grown up before their time, so taken up with work, worry, plans and the quest for security that they miss the sheer joy of life. This will produce good citizens, but will it pro- duce original and creative ones, he asks; is the strain of getting into and through university under highly competitive conditions combined with prolonged sexual abstinence well into the twenties not too much of a strain for young people in our sex-directed society with The threat of nuclear annihilation humming in the back- ground?

All this raises nearly as many questions as it answers. The first, naturally, relates, to the adequacy of the sample-200 students in two universities. Rose and Ziman, in Camford Ob- served, paint a different picture. 'With the gradual erosion of social barriers, with the in- flux of foreign girls learning English at the new language schools, with the decay of militant feminism, Oxbridge undergraduates, both men and women, live much fuller, more energetic, and on the whole much more healthy (sic) sex lives,' they write. But they give no idea of the proportions involved, or of their source of evi- dence, while statements like 'what young people in England want today is to be able to lead perfectly independent, etc.,' suggest that they rush into generalisations with an agility which owes much to their freedom from encumbrance by fact. Indeed, though the authors criticise Oxbridge for its amateurish unscientific ap- proach to social problems, and its tendency to over-value style and 'brilliant deduction' at the expense of 'processing masses of material for dull but certain gains,' their book epitomises this approach. Taken in small doses it is highly entertaining, but too much froth becomes tire- some after a while. By contrast, Zweig, who sets out to inform rather than 'to entertain, lasts the course better. In any case, he refers to his study as a pilot nr,''cut and ends with a !plea for• full-

scale research into students' life and work' as an integral part of planning university expan- sion and renovation.

As for the Robbins controversy, Zweig's find- ings suggest that finding adequate numbers of hard-working and teachable young people is not difficult; the real difficulty arises when it comes to inspiring them with those other qualities asso- ciated with a higher education.