The University Record, March 20, 2000

Generation provides important context, Stewart says

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

Using Michigan yearbooks to illustrate changes that swept American college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, psychology Prof. Abigail J. Stewart invited audience members to imagine the impact the two quite different universities would have had on 17 or 18 years olds. Photographs of students attending formal teas at the President’s House and neatly dressed students arranged in rows in the mid-1960s offered a sharp contrast to later images of angry student protesters.

Stewart, this year’s Henry Russel Lecturer, is recognized internationally for her landmark research on human behavior and personality development. She presented her Russel Lecture, “Uses of the Past: Toward a Psychology of Generations,” March 14 in Rackham Amphitheater. The Russel Lectureship is the highest honor the U-M confers upon a faculty member.

In studying the impact of being a member of a certain generation on individuals, Stewart uses a theoretical model that connects broad periods in the individual’s life course and major social events such as depressions, wars and social movements.

She has used this theory to study personality development of women who attended colleges in the 1960s and were profoundly affected by their experiences, particularly the women’s movement. Stewart, founding director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, said many women in this generation feel that they are part of a large social trend that marked the end of one era and the beginning of another, or as one research subject summed it up: “We were the vestigial tail of the Jello generation.”

Women students who were active in the women’s and civil rights movements in the 1960s, Stewart has found, are more likely to be politically engaged later in life than those who were not affected by significant social or historical events.

“For several years, I had been studying the process of middle-aging among college-educated women. We hoped to broaden the base of our knowledge about how people perceive their own middle years—from about 35–65—by studying a sample of men and women who were more diverse in social class background, age and race,” Stewart explained.

She shared preliminary results from a survey being conducted of 1955, 1956 and 1957 graduates from what she and her colleagues call Midwest High School, in a prosperous western Michigan city. Stewart is finding that this group also is strongly defined by its generation, but in ways that are quite different from the ways members of the generation that came of age in the 1960s were defined.

A substantial number of the 1950s graduates interviewed, evenly divided between African Americans and European Americans, have said the social movements and historical events of the 1960s did not affect them. Neither the European Americans nor the African Americans mentioned the civil rights movement as important in their lives, at least not until prompted to name it. In fact, Stewart said, “there was little conscious sense of a personal connection to social and political events at all.” They also did not view themselves as part of a generation shaped by particular events.

However, Stewart said, “these members of the 1950s generation strongly endorsed certain values as at the center of their own lives, as well as at the center of what their parents taught or exemplified.” A common response focused on the parents’ hope that their children would be “happy.” Graduates from poor and middle-class homes recalled an emphasis on the importance of work and upward mobility. “Regardless of race and gender, virtually every member of this generation to whom we talked stressed the importance to their parents and to them of ‘family values,’” such as getting and staying married and having children, Stewart noted.

The respondents, men and women, stressed the importance of religion in their families of rearing. “There was a strong emphasis on the performance of religious commitment, and on behaving in a proper manner, and much less emphasis on religious belief,” she added. What is striking, Stewart said, is that most of those surveyed describe themselves as having strong religious faith, many participate in a religious community and in religious activities at home, and “virtually all see themselves as continuing a commitment to religion that they learned from their parents and worked hard—mostly successfully—to cultivate in their children.”

Many of the individuals interviewed—European Americans and African Americans—considered their high school idyllic in terms of social relations. They remembered the 1950s “as a sort of golden age, when the melting pot vision was actually attained,” Stewart said, and “their memory of the social world at Midwest High School powerfully immunized them against later calls for social change.”

Stewart concluded that for some generations—including students attending Midwest High School in the 1950s—identification with others in their age group and with parental values serves as an anchor in later life. For others, like college activists in the 1960s, new values are created and times of transformation serve as models for future change, not continuity.

“What I am arguing today is not just that these two dispositions exist, but that they may help us understand how the generation we grow up with, and the experiences that shape us in young adulthood, may in fact predispose us to different uses of the past,” Stewart said.

She argued that generation provides an important context for the construction of the personalities, not only of those whose identities are shaped in adolescence by transforming social events, but also of those whose identities are shaped by powerful visions of core values that transcend history.

“The coexistence of generations with different proportions of those two predispositions in a given population—in our own time as in others—ensures that there is always a struggle over both their uses of the past and their visions of the future,” Stewart concluded.

Earlier in the program, Provost Nancy Cantor presented the Henry Russel Award to Jeffrey A. Fessler, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, of biomedical engineering and of internal medicine. Webb Keane, associate professor of anthropology who was unable to attend the ceremony because of a prior commitment, also received a Henry Russel Award.

The Henry Russel Award is presented to one or more assistant or associate professors selected for excellence in teaching and promise of distinction in scholarship.