Grow Up!

A philosopher’s take on individuals and maturity, in a world of institutions


Illustration by Phil Bliss

Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, by Susan Neiman ’77, Ph.D. ’86 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18)


Read George Santayana’s essay “Philosophy on the Bleachers.”

Writing in the Harvard Monthly in 1894, philosophy professor George Santayana, A.B. 1886, tried to account for the peculiar appeal of athletics in institutions of higher learning. The usual explanations were too facile, he thought—that sports are good for the health of the participants, that watching a game is better than doing nothing when we have nothing else to do, and so on. “Motives are always easy to assign, unless we wish to get to the real one.…We make ourselves cheap to make ourselves intelligible.” The paradox required a philosophical analysis.

The real appeal of athletics is that “we have in the United States seventy millions of people seized with the desire of absolutely resembling one another in dress, speech, habits, and dignities, and not one great or original man among them, except, perhaps, Mr. Edison.” Athletics are a form of resistance to the machine that grinds us up and homogenizes us as we reach adulthood. They are “the most conspicuous and promising rebellion against this industrial tyranny.…While we are young, and as yet amount to nothing, we retain the privilege of infinite potentiality. The poor actuality has not yet taken its place, and in giving one thing has made everything else for ever unattainable. But in youth the intellectual part is too immature to bear much fruit; that would come later if the freedom could be retained.” The chief value of athletics, Santayana argued in “Philosophy on the Bleachers,” is that “they are the first fruits of that spontaneous life, of which the higher manifestations are not suffered to appear.”

Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman ’77, Ph.D. ’86, now director of the Einstein Institute in Potsdam, Germany, is another philosopher’s take on questions of maturation and obligation, of mass conformity and individual freedom. In spite of the birthday balloons on the cover, this is not a book aimed at loafing college students. It neither preaches self-improvement nor goads readers into acting like grown-ups. Nor is it a guide for frustrated parents about talking to their spoiled post-adolescent children. There is some advice (of questionable wisdom, as we shall see) about how to grow up. But for the most part the book is more an analysis of why we should bother, when we seem to idolize people with the most time and money to enjoy grown-up toys (or even, in the case of Michael Jackson, childish toys).

The book is a treatise on the relevance of the Enlightenment tradition to this question, as stated on the second page: “Can philosophy help us to find a model of maturity that is not a matter of resignation?”

Neiman’s argument is opposite to Santayana’s. It’s not, as Santayana has it, that the “atrophy of the spontaneous and imaginative will” is inevitable when we “sell our birthright for a mess of pottage, and the ancestral garden of the mind for building lots” soon after leaving college. Neiman argues instead that we let social forces, advertising in particular, trap us in a permanently puerile state—and if we had the courage to grow up properly, we would remain free forever.

She takes a dim view of the cultural idealization of youth, and the denigration of adulthood as a series of compromises. In fact, she says, we do no one a favor by pretending that youth is the best time of our lives. “By describing what is usually the hardest time of one’s life as the best one,” she writes, “we make that time harder for those who are going through it.”

Instead, Neiman says, we need to reach back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile to understand how the West came to understand childhood. The Gedankenexperiment Rousseau set himself in Emile is “raising an ordinary boy under conditions that will lead him to become a genuinely free adult.” Neiman gives us a careful parsing not only of Rousseau on maturation, but of several others. The “historical backgrounds” chapter is professional but ponderous. “The problems and promise of Rousseau’s Emile—philosophy’s only full-length attempt at a manual for coming of age—will be examined later in some detail,” she gravely forewarns us. “I will show how Rousseau and Kant set the terms of discussion, before exploring what makes growing up even harder in the twenty-first century.”

This is not the place for a counter-critique of Rousseau, Kant, or any of the others Neiman interprets with some reverence (Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, Hannah Arendt, and Paul Goodman in particular, with occasional nods to Hume and Locke). But she selectively forgives the obvious problems with their educational prescriptions. Emile gets his education from a tutor who is extremely careful to keep all culture—all books, everything—away from his pupil. The boy is supposed to figure everything out for himself, because “every step in an education for freedom should be freely chosen,” as Neiman tells us. By the same token, children should not be chastised, but left to wail about the consequences of their own actions. “If the child is to be educated for freedom,” she explains, “he must be educated to submit to nothing but the demands of nature.” Though Neiman acknowledges that such tutelage is wildly dissonant with Rousseau’s abandonment of his own five children, all that proves to her is that the man was imperfect, not that his ideas were wrong. Rousseau, Neiman tells us, “was the first who dared to ask: what if we could have it all?”


Jump to the present day. Education is the first of Neiman’s three instruments of maturation, and she waxes rhapsodic over progressive schools—they rarely outlast their founders, but “tireless and hopeful educators and parents continue to create new ones.” Of course, she notes, there is an alternative: parents can educate their own children. “Those with time and resources may choose to educate their children at home,” she blithely offers, “but most of us will scrounge for the best alternative at hand. We’d prefer a school that cultivates our children’s autonomy,” following Kantian principles—free in all matters (though it’s okay to stop a child from grabbing a knife), and so on.

Is this advice harmlessly idealistic? Surely the time and resources required are not the only problems with home schooling; even parents who are skeptical of the curricula of traditional schools think their children learn something from being socialized with others, if only the useful skills of compromise and cooperation. In actual practice, home schooling sounds like a terrible way to develop autonomy. And I am skeptical that 12-year-olds, let’s say, socialized in the culture of ordinary 12-year-olds, should really be left alone to make serious life choices on their own.

Similar problems challenge Neiman’s advice about travel, her second instrument of maturation. Travel is essential, she says, but must be carried out freely—not, for example, in college study-abroad programs, which “send young people abroad with the promise of learning in and from another culture, and keep them in conditions under which they cannot possibly do so.” Fair enough; as Horace put it in the first century b.c.e., Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (those who go running across the sea change their climate but not their mind). But are fences and overpopulation really, as Neiman suggests, the main problems with young people sleeping in haylofts half a world from home, as she describes de Beauvoir doing? It’s debatable whether youth travel is less safe today than it used to be or whether we are simply more risk-averse, but surely assault, robbery, abduction, terrorism, and so on are reasonable worries.

Work, finally, is the hardest instrument of maturation to square with personal freedom, and here Neiman’s political sympathies become apparent. She rues “the alienation of labor,” “planned obsolescence,” and “weakened unions,” and defines neo-liberalism as “the view that free unregulated markets producing ever-increasing amounts of shoddy goods are the basis of human happiness.” Carpentry is her canonical example of good work, though she acknowledges that we can’t all survive by making tables for each other.

Neiman has nothing good to say about institutions of any kind (except labor unions, perhaps). We tell children that their questions will be answered in school, she says, “and we send them to institutions that will dull their desire to pose questions at all.” Corporations are bad, too. Neiman imagines what Kant would have thought about Coca-Cola funding “public” schools in exchange for exclusive pouring rights—indeed a startling and absurdist image, reminiscent of the scene in Dr. Strangelove in which Colonel Guano warns Group Captain Mandrake that he’s “gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company” if the soda machine is damaged in the course of preventing nuclear holocaust.

I failed to notice a single positive characterization of any enduring institution—no state, business, or long-lasting educational institution comes in for admiration. We can grant the exaggerated importance of soft drinks in contemporary society, while still wondering how children raised for freedom rather than tradition will keep alive such stabilizing institutions as the universities that preserve philosophical analysis, or “those wise restraints that make us free” that our law graduates are supposed to fashion.

To be sure, the spirit of youthful freedom is too often corrupted commercially: as Neiman wonders about Kant and Coke, I can well imagine what Santayana would think of the Ohio State-Oregon football championship game. But the maturational tension never discussed is between stability and spontaneity, between respect for tradition and the impish urge for creative destruction. These are, in my experience, the challenging part of university life in what Neiman rightly calls an infantile age, and she gave me no help with them. 

Harry R. Lewis, interim dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and past dean of Harvard College, is Gordon McKay professor of computer science. Long involved in undergraduate admissions and athletics, among other aspects of College life, he has written popularly on such subjects in Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? and was coeditor, with Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, of What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education.

Read more articles by Harry R. Lewis

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