To begin, with the acceptance of certain cultural ideas in the 1960’s, we must peer into the history of those ideas. Many of those ideas were not new to the 1960’s. They were just ideas that were revived and brought out to the forefront of the western culture. Most of these ideas that burst out in the 1960’s were first developed more fully in the 19th Century. Why did people go to 19th Century thought for new ideas? What was so attractive about those ideas to the 1960’s mind?
In this survey, I will try to find some answers. This article is split into two parts: the first part covers the history of those ideas in brief with a little bit of commentary, then the second one becomes more personal, a collection of memories and information, as it tries to interpret the 1960′s from the perspective of a child who grew up seeing these ideas in action from the 1970’s and beyond.
Both articles will contain my own opinions. I would never venture say that I am completely right about what I have observed. More likely, this is just one small piece to a very large puzzle. If you lived during this time and/or are an historian, I would be happy to hear your perspective too.
The 1960’s—a turning point in 20th century history. In my history search about a 20th century woman, a prominent theme seemed to appear—widespread war and global change. Many people began to question the usefulness of becoming globalized and modernized with the onslaught of two World Wars. Some people feared losing their culture. Others tried to force culture out of the way and tried to sterilize their nations, so to speak, into one superior race. They did this with ethnic cleansing, propaganda, and genocide.
What was causing all this widespread violence? Was it an idea that was driving people into these wars and revolutions? Was technology helping or hurting? Did technology need a proper philosophy to keep it under control? What philosophy was that? And from there, I want to learn what has already been tried and has already proven to not work? And also, what worked and has been proven by time?
So where did these new ideas come from? That might be doable. Why were these ideas embraced? I don’t know if I can say.
Here are some ideas that began to develop in the 19th century:
- Ideas on psychology
- Ideas on sexuality
- Ideas on progress
- Ideas on eugenics and population control
- Ideas on how to create a revolution to restructure societies
- Ideas on femininity and what that meant
- Ideas on new religious beliefs
- Ideas on anthropology and archaeology
- Ideas on technology
Now, let me pause here and say, these ideas were always available throughout human history, but the 19th century people were the first to accept them in a broader sense and so made them more clear and concrete for people to put into action. So, of course, all of these ideas were built on theories from previous generations. These ideas had influences of Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Spinoza, Hume, Locke, Kant, Goethe, not to mention 18th century industrialism and the reign of terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship. Before that, it was the medieval philosophers and their varied ideas, the battles to define boundaries with other cultures, the Reformation, and more exploration. In fact, in every culture throughout the world, there has been some sort of history of war, expansion, recreation, and that human cry of “why?!”
So why did these ideas gain more prominence in the 19th century? What were some other things that were happening? Writings in the 19th century permeated the humanities–writings from Wordsworth, Byron, Blake, Poe, Hegel, Whitman, Twain, Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, Alcott, Baudelaire, Hans Christian Andersen, Austen, Hopkins, the Brownings, Hawthorne, Stowe, Doyle, Carroll, Verne, Wells and Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn. Diverse literature to say the least. The Impressionists, Realists, Idealists, and other painted their works with varied responses from their critics in this century, but they were overcome by the invention of the photograph (1835).
In 1803, the U.S. made the Louisiana Purchase extending organization complexities over a whole continent while China came under more British influence with the purchase of Hong Kong. The “Trail of Tears” was walked by the Cherokee Indian (1838). In 1848 there was a continent wide collapse of credit in Europe, a lot of unemployment, bad harvests, and a cholera epidemic. Then, the telegraph, the telephone, and better transportation were invented. The world began to connect in new ways with the advance of technology. Ideas were being shared on a global scale with global travel and communication becoming easier than ever before.
By the mid-1800’s, Darwin (1859) had published a theory that would further encourage an idea that there was a superior race, an elite race. It was thought that those who had the most were the most (by the way, I don’t think that was Darwin’s intention by any means). At the time, the British Empire owned the most prominent ports all over the world, thus they felt like they may have been that superior race, the most evolved. With the Origin of Species and the differences of race, scholars began to look at the differences in cultures and began to formulate ideas on why certain people became “civilized” while others seemed more “barbaric.”
In the meantime, Pasteur came up with a germ theory that expanded to interventions that would help people live longer (1861). Mill came up with his utilitarian ideals while other theories by Saint-Simon (not a Catholic Saint) said that an orderly, just society would only be found if they were ruled by “technocratic elites,” who were a group of scientists, engineers, and technicians that could solve technical problems for an entire society. Karl Marx said that this society would only happen if a class war began. He said religion was the opium of the people that prevented them from realizing human potential and progress.
About that time, the U.S. had a civil war in the 1860’s over slavery and succession while Thanksgiving became a new holiday (1863). The American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton as women’s suffrage began in this same century.
Otto von Bismark sought to control more parts of Germany, Denmark, France, and Austria, claiming an empire in 1871. He put Catholic schools under state supervision, expelled religious orders, enforced civil marriage over sacramental marriage, imprisoned bishops and priests, closed monasteries, and seized Church property. By 1875, his new system failed [Kulturkampf] .
Transportation gathered steam as railroads connected communities while realism and naturalism became popular in the novel with Dickens, Tolstoy, Eliot, Twain, and Balzac. Realism (trying to capture reality) changed to Naturalism (man overwhelmed by things beyond his control). Journalism with photographs from actual war took on a whole new meaning and created a new sense of fear in its readers.
Towards the end of the 1800’s, the Ottoman Empire (the Turkish) began to collapse as Russia began to move into parts of Turkey, China, and Caucasus. Japan had to come out of its isolation for the first time; the British Empire continued to expand; and ports in Asia and Africa would be governed by European countries. Biblical Archaeology began to gain new ground as the British entered the Holy Land while Revivalism spread in the United States.
Freud, James, and Dostoyevsky searched the mind for problems with repression in a Victorian era of sensibility. Nietzsche became the most influential for the pessimistic elitists while Gobineau gave racism credence with his version of “science.” In the late 1800’s, anti-Semitism began to take hold in Germany with the idea that there was a perfect German race, causing many to decide it was time to leave.
At the very end of this century and into the 20th century, the United States received more than 12 million new immigrants through Ellis Island, many of them German. With immigrants from many other countries, also came the Irish who wanted emancipation from the English. The Pope who would bring the Church into the next century said that the next heresy that would be lived out in the 20th Century would be “the synthesis of all heresies.” He said the first things that would begin to cause problems would be the 20th century man’s denial of sin. He said it would be done with how humans treated language, the terms used in that language, and, yes, even their ideas.
This train of ideas drove into the 20th century, the first half markedly harsh because of two World Wars [see timeline in history search]. After the World Wars, the Marxist ideas were suppressed as were the ideas of eugenics. Then the Baby Boom occurred. Compared to the first half of the century, the world felt more at peace with only pockets of violence here and there for the next few years and a Cold War that kept nuclear annihilation at bay, but then came the 1960’s.
During this time, the U.S. had its longest sustained economic boom—lots of children and lots of prosperity to go with it. Almost everyone had access to a television and the movies, conveniences were added to the home, suburbs grew to be the standard. But by the end of this decade, people would see riots, a mass shooting at Texas University (1966), Vietnam, Woodstock, the Beatles, Indian expressions of religion, the first man on the moon, civil rights movements, drugs, new technologies in medicine and agriculture and a new sense of faith in science as the cure to humanity’s problems. Oh, and Sesame Street started in 1969.
East Germany built a wall to prevent anyone from leaving while Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream but was killed for it. The U.S.S.R. and the U.S. competed to be the first in space and beyond. The Vatican sent out documents about everything from human sexuality to how to participate in the Liturgy, documents that were largely misread or not read at all since many priests and nuns turned away from their vows and hardly anyone was left to explain how the Church meant to approach and call modern man.
During this time too, a feminism that had all but disappeared for a couple of decades began to surface at the universities at the time when Baby Boomers were going to college. Marxist ideas regained popularity as university students worldwide (U.S., Europe, China) began to call for revolution.
In short, the 1960’s saw a group of university students who were born into prosperity, technology, and peace relative to what their parents had seen but still under the fear of nuclear devastation; they decided to revive the ideas that their parents had already lived through, even the ideas that their parents had fought against in two World Wars.
Baby Boomers summoned the following ideas from the 19th Century:
- Ideas on psychology—They spent a lot more time on the mind. They extended a lot trust into its abilities to solve problems with corruption in human behavior. Again, this idea had been developing, but it hadn’t been widely re-embraced until this point. With this came the proposal that humans had no free-will. Psychology would become more important than spirituality.
- Ideas on sexuality–With the sexual revolution, teenagers became a new sub group in society and a consumer group for corporations. Not only did the Pill become more popular in the early 1960’s, but IUD’s were invented as was the philosophy of “free love”.
- Ideas on eugenics and population control—With the pill, this came in the form of increased access to abortion in minority areas and even forced sterilization in some cities. The teens and university students from the 60’s were taught that the world population was growing too fast and too big with a book titled, The Population Bomb (1968).
- Ideas on how to create a revolution to restructure societies—They became rebels without a cause ins some instances, having some protests, that, to me anyway, look rather peculiar. Many had everything they needed, but they were, as Dorothy Day put in her letters, some of the most angry young people she had ever seen [All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day].
- Ideas on femininity—Women’s rights and what that meant moved women into a new identity. Rights for women included those of career, success, and money. Many felt that women could not do this by having children.
- Ideas on religious beliefs–Most religions were considered patriarchal and therefore evil, so several different versions of spirituality began to arise that were based on no religion.
- Ideas on progress—These were centered on getting women in careers, getting bigger houses, getting more stuff, more convenience; Vietnam suppressed the desire to have war while space beckoned to take technology further. Progress included, then, increased rights for women in tandem with the evolution of technology.
- Ideas on anthropology and archaeology—They continued to look at cultures and make large assumptions based on little evidence, so revisions became the standard. More discoveries would be made in the origin of man, while cultural anthropologists tried to move away from imperial interpretations of diverse civilizations.
This generation–Baby Boomers, sometimes called the “me” generation–began to relive what people in the 19th century began. The 19th century person wanted to create the perfect society. But was this the Baby Boomers aim? Imperfect people and societies in the early 20th century had to suppress this 19th century notion because they saw that real people are involved in all societies and that real people were getting killed by this attempt to make the perfect society. The conclusion, it is not humane to try to make a perfect society in an imperfect world. And whose idea of perfection would be used for that “perfect” society anyway? Was this longing for “the perfect society” the Baby Boomers primary goal?
Why were Baby Boomers so angry? Baby Boomers ended up revolting against the previous generation, their own parents. It wasn’t any certain culture, race, or gender. They were counter-cultural. They largely blamed their parents for their imperfect existence, which I am guessing can be attributed to the psychology of the day, and that is where the revolution and anger largely remained. They acted out. Did they do it for their parents? Instead of using mass weaponry to fight this war, they would fight in a more subtle way, make the battleground their sexual bodies, their minds, their ideas, perhaps even their souls. Now anything the older generation did was something to fight against, something to fear, so now religion, tradition, big families, posterity—these all were wrong. These all cause conflict in the Baby Boomers mind. Why? I just don’t know for sure. Any suggestions?
In turn, the Baby Boomers would call their child, Generation X. Some say, it’s because Baby Boomers thought they had already done everything that could be done. Others say it’s because the Baby Boomers won’t give up the lime light so easily, so they let their children go unnamed, unregarded. And still others say, it’s due to the fact that the Baby Boomers had no parenting abilities and have created a generation of people who are burnt from neglect.
The Baby Boomers, the youth of the 1960’s, drove into an exiled land in their rebellion. The next generation had to go along with them. Will we ever get out of the debt we’ve been given? Will we ever feel good about all our friends who were lost to abortion? Will we ever be happy about our parents’ decisions to do things for themselves without looking to how that would affect us and our future?
They caused a generational battle with their parents in the 1960’s, do the next generations really want to do the same?
So back to my first questions: What was causing all this conflict? Was it an idea that was driving people into these wars and revolutions? Was technology helping or hurting? Did technology need a proper philosophy to keep it under control? What philosophy was that? And from there, I want to learn what has already been tried and has already proven to not work. And also, what worked and has been proven by time? And, has this conflict really ever gone away?
Some would blame the invention of contraception and the consequent mentality of contraception. Of course, the idea more likely came before the invention. What do you think? I want to know your thoughts.
To add this to my series on Reconstructing Feminism, I want to see why feminism is the way it is today, and I want to know, does it have to be this way? Do we have to do it the Baby Boomer way?
*Not all Baby Boomers went with the flow of the counter-culture. I hope by using those terms I did not offend anybody.
For more resources see the following literature pieces:
Edith Stein, Woman
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity
Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being (compiled by Sally Fitzgerald)
Thomas Aquinas or someone who can explain his theology on “act and potential…”
Augustine, “On Free Choice of the Will”
John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, Written by Himself
Henrik Ibsen’s “Dollhouse”
Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening”
Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”
The Anne Lute Anthology of U.S. Women Writers edited by Lisa Maria Hogeland and Mary Klages
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills”
Herman Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids”
Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and “Everyday Use”
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being compiled by Sally Fitzgerald
Virginia Woolf and other writers from the 20th century
For History Documents see: