The other day, preparing for an on-line movie group I belong to, I watched Francois Truffaut's first and probably his greatest movie, The 400 Blows. It may be the best movie ever about childhood, and it has more specific meanings for me as well. Just two years after the film was released I began two years of my own in a French lycée myself, in newly independent Senegal, when I was exactly the age of Antoine Doinel in the movie, and I recognize the classroom atmosphere. I also recognized the Paris of the film, which I experienced in brief visits in 1961 and 1962, when I was struck by how dirty much of it was, with used tickets strewn all over metro stations and bathrooms well below American standards. (All that has changed now.) And the school scenes set me thinking about broader trends in western civilization.
France was the first thoroughly bureaucratic modern state. That trend began, as Tocqueville argued in his classic The Old Regime and the French Revolution, in the 17th century, but the revolution and Napoleon's empire accelerated it. The Emperor's education minister boasted that he knew what every child in the country was studying at every hour of the day. And to succeed in life, a young man or woman had to conform to the rules of the schools. I did not realize until 20 years later, thanks to a colleague who had studied French public education, how the system was sorting out winners and losers from a very early age. Students had to repeat grades much more frequently than in US public education, and anyone who had was not going to advance beyond the minimum school requirements. That explains the intense alienation of Antoine Doinel and some of his schoolmates, and of some of mine in Senegal as well. And the regimented style of French education may also explain the alienation of so many French intellectuals from "the system" during the twentieth century, led by those like Jean-Paul Sartre who had actually performed brilliantly all the way through it. Meanwhile, however, the country is still run by those who made it to the very top of the pyramid, the "grandes écoles" that train various kinds of French professionals. Its public services are still outstanding today, but more than 40 percent of the electorate is now alienated from the system and votes for the extreme right.
Something similar has happened in American history, of course. American life became far more bureaucratized in the twentieth century, including its educational system. The mid-century crisis created a remarkably uniform population that dressed alike, ate the same food, and watched the same three television networks. And like generations of French intellectuals, the first American generation to grow up in this world--the Boom--immediately rebelled. No achievement was more impressive, in retrospect, than the creation of the university of California system, which in the early 1960s was offering every state resident a superb education at virtually no cost. Yet in the fall of 1964, before the escalation of the Vietnam war, when a political controversy broke out at Berkeley, Mario Savio drew applause from his fellow students when he explicitly compared the oppression of the university bureaucracy to the oppression of white supremacy in Mississippi. Fueled by the war, that revolt spread around the nation during the next six years, and neither universities nor American life have ever been the same. The revolt became intellectual as well as political, fueled in part by women, minorities and gays who insisted that traditional western civilization had ignored them. At the same time, economic interests who resented the share of the resources that the government had taken were beginning to mobilize against the New Deal legacy, and by 1981 they were in charge. Meanwhile, organized religion emerged once again as an alternative source of values and a counterweight to utilitarianism.
Millennials and Gen Z have carried the revolt against bureaucracy to a new level that exalts the "disruption" of existing institutions. I cannot predict how far all of this will go It's a very different kind of challenge than predicting the future of the world in 1938, say, when at least three different kinds of well-organized and bureaucratic states were embarking on a struggle for world domination. I do think that the world in which I grew up came from particular historical circumstances, and valued certain aspects of human nature far more than others. Perhaps it is generational change, more than anything else, that ensures that the neglected parts of human nature will always emerge once again.