Max Lerner, Leo Rosten, George Shuster

America’s Image Of Itself

VTR Date: December 29, 1957


GUESTS: Leo Rosten, Max Lerner, Dr. George Shuster
AIR DATE: 12/29/1957

ANNOUNCER: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, “America’s Image of Itself.” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, authbr and historian.
MR. HEFFNER: This is the time of year when everyone takes stock and I suppose it’s quite appropriate for us to take stock of America’s image of itself. All-through the year we hear a great deal about what Americans think about the world outside and we hear a great deal about what the world outside thinks about America..
Today we want to analyze ourselves, our own concept of ourselves, and so as usual I have three guests, experts who will join me for this subject.

My first guest is Max Lerner, who is an historian, news¬paper columnist, and author of “America as a Civilization,”
My second guest is Dr. George. Shuster, President of Hunter College here in New York City.
My third guest is Mr. Leo Rosten, sociologist, author, editorial adviser to Look Magazine.
I think I’d like to put the first question to you, Mr. Lerner, and we will comment on the book, “America as a Civilization,” and ask whether you think that America’s self-image includes as part of itself a notion of America as a civilization?
MR. LERNER: Well if I can speak of a little experience I’ve had since my book has been published, a number of people have told me of their surprise that should think of America as a civili¬zation, that I should call it a civilization. I guess they figure that being civilized has something very special in this crazy world of ours and that we are not civilized; but they nevertheless do feel that we are a unique people, we’re not the Europeans, that we are not the Asians. In that sense I would say that there is a feeling on the part of Americans of themselves as somehow separable from the rest of the world.
MR. HEFFNER: Do you find this to be true, Dr. Shuster?
DR. SHUSTER: Yes, I think I would agree. Of course if you approach the problem from one point of view you immediately get into unsolvable difficulties. We can say, for example, some American{

are the most irreligious people in the world, some Americans are the most religious people in the world, some Americans believe in free¬dom of opportunity, and some Americans don’t give a hoot for oppor¬tunity. And then you can only say the best way to write a book about us is to do what Count Keyserling did, sit in a hotel room and talk to nobody. Nevertheless, I do–
MR. LERNER: We felt it wasn’t very good.
DR. SHUSTER: No, I agree with you. But I do think there are certain things that are unique about us and we recognize it. The first in my judgment is that we have created a unique lang¬uage which is a magnificent achievement.
Secondly, we have given political form to certain ideas and we believe in those ideas.
Third, we have more freedom of opportunity I think than any other people has ever known. I think we are conscious of these things; and perhaps that’s our image of America.
MR. HEFFNER: Do you think this question of freedom of opportunity, this fits into our image of ourselves?
DR. SHUSTER: T very sincerely do.
MR. HEFFNER: Mr. Hasten?
MR. ROSTEN: When we talk about America’s image of it-self I’m tempted to think about those things which Americans regard as worthy, the things they ought to try to be. The thing that in¬terests me is that the American as a type is supposed to be first

very very friendly. He has got to reassure people by smiling all the time, by making friends rapidly, by joining organizations, and by showing that he is not different from other people.
Secondly, there is an assumption that an American can go as far as his talents can possibly take him without reference to where he came from, how much money his parents had, who they were socially, et cetera.
The third thing that interests me very much is the idea in the American that you must commit yourself to either a political or a moral or a religious position, that we don’t really allow
people to have detachment, that we regard detachment as cynicism; and that it is these things which sometimes puzzle the Europeans about us, that they tend to think of us as not what we would like to be thought of but as quite different.
We like to think of ourselves as tough-minded. We seem to have a fear of sentiment. We seem to have a fear of the di¬rect expression of feeling; and much of this T suppose is organized around the idea that in America material success is important, that you measure a person’s worth according to what he has done, how much money he has made, what empires he has built, and the record is al¬ways one of matching the self against known achievements, unlike say the English who consider people in terms not of what they have done but what they are.
DR. SHUSTER: May I say just one word, Mr. Hasten? It

has always seemed to me that one of the major differences between
our view of ourselves and of other people’s is that we are far less
identified with the civil service
MR. ROSTEN: The civil service, oh yes.
DR. SHUSTER: …than our most European countries. For example, our activities in the arts, to a great extent our educa
tional enterprise, and most of all our business enterprise are far less associated with the concept of civil service and much more with
the concept of free creative opportunities than is otherwise the case.
MR. ROSTEN: Isn’t that what you were talking about, Mr. Lerner, when you talked about America as not a class society but
as an open class society with high mobility and high opportunity?
MR. LERNER: May I say that I find all of this most in-formative and most illuminating, and we could go on a long time list
ing.the traits that Americans have about themselves in their own minds, but I’ve been trying to compare the nation with the individua You know about most people isn’t it true, about almost any individua any person, that the most important thing about him in a curious wa,:y is his self-image, how he sees himself? And he doesn’t see himself in terms of a catalog of traits, does he? Really he sees himself in some particular single way, and I’ve been trying to think in my mind is there somthing about America that corresponds to that, an would guess that — I hate to say it, but I would guess that we’re

like the fellow that thinks he is a big shot. I think we have a feeling that we’ve never been beaten in the world, we’ve never lost a war, and that we’re unbeatable, that it’s unthinkable that we should be beaten.
To me this especially at the present time in the arms race, the weapons race, the science race, the intelligence race that we are pursuing with the Communist world, at the present time that seems to me more important than almost anything else.
MR. ROSTEN: Do you think really that Americans think they won the war in Korea?
MR. LERNER: Oh I think Americans think they didn’t lose it. Notice I say we’ve never been beaten. We’ve never been beaten. And Korea was the beginning of a certain disenchantment be-cause there we were stalemated. This is the first time we were eve]. stalemated.
But this notion of being unbeatable, again as with a
person that goes along with certain other things — for example, we’re like a woman getting on toward middle age whose self-image is
that she is eternally young. We think of ourselves as always young We will never be anything but young in our own minds.
DR. SHUSTER: Mr. Lerner, I’d like to try a little com ment on you. As you probably are aware 1 spent a great deal of my adult life in Germany. Now it seems to me that Americans have al-ways, and still have, a very curious readiness to assume that the

Germans can do better than they can in a variety of ways. Germans can make gadgets better than we can.
MR. LERNER: Yes, unimportant things.
DR. SHUSTER: Now when we come to the Pussian situa
tion I think we’re face to face with a duality of involvement. On the one hand we comfortably assume that the Russians would not be very powerful so that we could go on having peace in our times. Now that the Russians have become what everybody should have known long ago, human beings, inventive and creative ones, this illusion we can have peace on our terms is fading, and I think that is what disturbs the American people and not so much this feeling of super-satisfaction in their achievements.
MR. ROSTEN: Let me come to the point that Mr. Lerner
raised about the American as a big shot. I think it is very clear that the American is the man who has the image of having to appear to be big, that is, having to have a big ego, partly I assume be¬cause we have been trained to make such demands upon ourselves that in a sense all of us fall short of the values we were given. We
have an uncertain ego rather than a big ego. People think we are bragging when what we’re trying to do is to shore up the image, to try to appear to be people who have used to the full our resources.
MR. HEFFNER: Mr. Rosten, I wonder about this because I noted in our discussion before the program and now several ex¬pressions appeared before, “we are supposed to be,” our image is we

are supposed to be; and then you said, we have to have certain
qualities,” and; “we like to seem to be a certain way”; and I won¬der whether this doesn’t bear out what you are saying? We are talking now not so much about what we think we are but what we think we should be.
MR. ROSTEN: How can you have an image of the self in the terms that,Mr. Lerner I think very astutely outlined it a mo¬ment ago without that involving certain values to which you try to conform or that you try to reach?
MR. HEFFNER: Well you can see yourself. Can’t you see yourself realistically on the one hand and then you can see your self as you think you should be on the other.
MR, LERNER: Do you ever see yourself realistically as
a person? I doubt whether we do, I think I would very much go along with what Mr. Rosten says that in the case of any person the image he has of himself is an idealized image and he clings to it very much, and he has a feeling very often of guilt about what he ought to be and he is not living up to what he ought to be. If I
may get a little into the field of mental health here — and I thins
it may be appropriate — one of the problems with many people is that their image of what they ought to be and what they like to thin, of themself, that there is a great gap between that image and the reality, and when this gap becomes too great, when it becomes intol¬erable then you get something of a breakdown.

DR. SHUSTER: IsriPt the same thing true of education? Welve gone along for quite some time assuming that the thing we wanted to be was more or less a good citizen first in the classroom -and secondly outside.. Now we are in the mood to think, (a) that we haventt found out how to be good citizens at all, view juvenile de¬linquency; and (b) that we want something else,. We are now creating for American education a totally new image of what we want the American to be in the school, and that includes also of course the totally new image of the teacher. l think that this is now so wide¬spread a demand on the part of the public that we will have to face this question, what do we want education to tell us about what weFre supposed to be?
MR, HEFFNER: Do you think we’re creating another one of these false images again of what we should be rather than of what we are or can be?
DR. SHUSTER I think therets a great deal of false and a great deal-of true in it. I always think of the American teacher himself.. Now of course there are various things to be said about his pay check, et cetera, which obviously needs to be reinforced; bu if you take the American teaching profession as a whole there cantt be any question at all that nowhere in history at no time and place has the teaching profession be treated as liberally as it is in the United States right now.
MR. TRRNER: Now you ruffle my trade union sensibilitieE I think thatts true, and I think itts a healthy thing for you to say, Dr. Shuster, but I would remind you — lets take the Russian ease. Obviously the Russian teacher is not being paid as much as

10 the American teacher. This is something for us to understand. But it’s also something for us to understand that in comparative terms if you think of the whole structure of the Russian payment system, in comparative terms the Russian teacher is being paid much more highly than the American teacher.
DR. SHUSTER: Well if you start out with a system
I’ve looked into that relatively carefully — start out with a system in which the working population, which ought to be the real trade union one, has neither freedom nor wages,.,,,,ss,
MR. TF,RNER: That’s right.
DR, SHUSTER: and then you say that you’re going
to pay the equivalent of the gymnasium teacher only, that’s the only one we’ve ever really studied rather liberally, then I grant the Russians .,…
MR. LRRNER: Within that structure liberally; that’s all I’m saying.
DR, SHUSTER: Now from that point of view the American high school teacher unquestionably has an argument.
MR. LERNER: He’s underpaid; the only point I wanted to
DR. SHUSTER: But if you take the whole realm of the teaching profession then there isn’t any doubt; just look, for ex¬ample more teachers spend vacations in Florida than businessmen. MR, ROSTEN: Is that true?
DR, SHUSTER: Why of course it’s true. They don’t stay at the same hotels, which is probably one thing that Mr. Lerner ought to bring into the discussion of class feeling.

MR. ROSTEN: May I ask this. It seems to me that one of the prices we pay for the enormous technological advances we
have made is that we impoverish people in terms of those values which Europeans seem to have more than we do, that when the demand on Americans is constantly to earn more, to get ahead in the world, to get more money, to get a better job, et cetera, we set up an endless race. There’s no place at which to stop. There is no place at which status is achieved. There is no point at which a person can really retire; and that what happens in America is that the fulfillment of certain goals does not give us the happiness we were told, at least inferentially, we would get if we got suc¬cessful.
One of the things that interests me is the growing
sense of loneliness or of emptiness in Americans of the middle years who have done pretty well but whose image of what they should have been according to the inherited values of the culture and of the family; theregs still a gap between that image and the image of achievement.
Now if you raise a society or a group of people on the
assumption that the function of life first is to succeed and se-condly is to be happy you are giving them an impossible task. dongt happen to think the function of life is happiness nor that happiness as an end result is a worthy goal of civilized people.
MR. HEFFNER: You mean the pursuit of happiness that we’ve made so much of?
MR. ROSTEN: Not the pursuit of happiness, the end. MR. LERNER: The happiness of pursuit.

DR. SHUSTER: 1 think that’s one place in which-a failure to include some awareness of the whole world of classical culture has played it false. Because certainly Thomas Jefferson did not have in mind what your businessman has in mind. He was thinking of the pursuit of happiness in Aristotelian terms, which are those that Cicero or anybody else would have defined as the pursuit of wisdom.
MR. ROSTEN: And the neutralization of one’s resources. DR. SHUSTER: Yes.
MR. ROSTEN: To be free to use to the full the re¬sources that one has. It’s to me quite interesting that in America the idea of culture, meaning a cultured person, a civilized person, is somehow sissy and that culture has been reserved for the women. I don’t know whether Mr. Lerner would care to talk about this. He has touched on it in his book.
MR, LERNER: To an extent it’s true and to an extent it’s true that in colleges the co-eds, the girls, carry the torch of culture a good deal, and yet I’ve been amazed as I’ve travelled around all over the country recently to see the extent to which in every city, in every city, there is a very sizable core group of people including men, who are playing in private little orchestras, who are getting together in study groups, who are really thinking about things. We are not Philistines quite to the extent that we are sometimes made out to be,
MR, BEFieNER: You think then that in this area the image is changing?
MR. TERMER: I think the fact is changing; and one of

13 the things we have to do I think is to separate the fact from the image. I would agree with Mr. Rosten that the image is still probably that. Its still the wife who is supposed to read the novels and enjoy music, but I say the reality is changing, and it is that change in reality that I welcome. But there is in one res¬pect I think that neither the image nor the reality perhaps is changing. certainly the image is not changing.
I’d like to go a little step further along the line
that Mr. Rosten has been talking about, I think in some ways we think of ourselves as good technicians, good businessmen, good engineers. I think one of the shocks that we have had that Dr. Shuster was talking about was to find out that we were not the only ones that can invent, that we’re not the only ones that are really good technicians, that the Russians can do it.
But I think we’ve always had this feeling that we could make and invent anything we wanted to, and that what we cantt make and invent we can buy.
MR, LERNER: Now this part of the image troubles me
very much. Do you notice the reaction to the Sputnik crisis?
One of the reactions was, “Let’s catch up with the Russians.”
But the second reaction was, “Let’s pay more money; another ten billion, another ten billion.” Again a little like the individual like the person who says in effect: “Well, if my health is broken down I can go to the doctor and I can say to the Doctor, ‘Doctor,
money is no object, what are you going to do?”
We seem to think that we can buy solutions,not only

14 buy products but buy solutions, and to me one of the faultiest things about the whole American self-image is this notion. You see, I link it with the idea that we are unbeatable. Were un-beatable because we’ve never been beaten in a war, we’ve always been able to make things and invent things, and whenever we’ve been caught somewhere we can buy our way out of it.
MR. HEFFNER: Yes, but why do you talk now as you did just a moment ago about the beginning of the disenchantment? You
compared this with the middle-aged woman who hates to admit but finally is obliged to admit that the years are setting in. What leads you to believe that we are becoming disenchanted of a solu¬tion?
MR, LERNER: In the case of a middle-aged woman at a
certain point she has to submit to the reality of the mirror, and in the case of the American nation at a certain point there is the objective reality of the world around us. We see, for example, that we’re being beaten in the diplomatic game all through the Middle East and in Asia. We see the facts of technology and these things are beginning to penetrate. As a matter of fact they pene
trated so far and so fast we even going all the way to the othe
way, namely into a panic which to me is an unnecessary kind of panic.
MR. HEFFNER: May T just follow this up for a moment?
You say going the other way but isn’t it really in a sense the same way? The panic doesn’t it to a certain extent come from the fact that we still think we’re omnipotent and there must be some¬thing terribly wrong at home?

MR, GRRNER: That’s good.
MR. HEFFNER: If we are being beaten on this point. Dr.
DR, SHUSTER: I don’t think so. I would like to dis-sent if I may from this position. In the first place I think the basic question that arises in the average American citizen’s mind is this; “What can I do about it?”
Now it’s perfectly obvious that if he has to lay down his life he will. Nobody ought to doubt that. What else can he do; He can’t run the State Department.
MR, LRRNER: No, but he can exercise intelligence in thc selection of people who appoint the people that run the State De-partment.
DR, SHUSTER: Well all right, but then you see after al: he can’t help the fact that we have a system of government which is relatively permanent for a period of four years. Now is the questio, The Sputnik is a tremendous advertising device, probably the great¬est that has ever been — it almost persuaded American youngsters they have to do more homework.
MR. ROSTEN: May I point out that what you are saying reinforces my particular bias, that the American image of the suc-cessful man, the American contempt for the egghead, the long-hair, has now driven us to a very uncomfortable position. The assumptior was that a man who can operate a business can be a successful Secrc Lary of the Treasury or Secretary of State or hold any public offic That the intellectual, the person who thinks, who has disciplined his mind, who has studied the phenomena of history and society, tha

16 that kind of person is not to be trusted with public office; and one of the things I think that is dawning on the American people is that with the best intentions in the world men who have succeeded in business have done a wretched job in politics.
MR. LERNER: Or even succeeded in law, Mr. Rosten. In-clude law on that.
MR. ROSTEN: All right. And that now there is a tremen¬dous movement for what I can only call the restoration of the egg¬head. We want more intellectuals, we want them fast, and as Mr. Lerner says, you can’t buy them. You can’t buy people who think, and you can’t buy ideas, and we are paying the price it seems to me for a dismissal of those values which are intellectual, which are contemplative, and which are not to be measured in terms of market¬ability, market success or business achievement,
MR, LERNER: As the British say, Hear, Hears
DR. SHUSTER: I would merely like to point out that that may be true of one segment of the American community, but in my judgment this is probably the biggest generalization that can suc¬cessfully be made about the American.
MR. LERNER: I want to hear this
DR. SHUSTER:. He thinks he is a thoroughly uncultured mortal and never before have we ever witnessed a people so madly in quest of culture. Why it has now become a fact that you can’t ride the subway anymore at nights without seeing hundreds of books being read; i mean being read after hours by people who have gone to a great variety of extension schools. These are male and female.
MR, TPRNER: Will you find them in the wealthiest houses

DR. SHUSTER: Yes, we do. We have, for example, a very
considerable patronage which comes from Park Avenue.
MR. LERNER: Yes, well that’s good. Will you find them
all through the country, Dr. Shuster? I think the New York subway,
by the way, is one of the most exciting institutions in the whole of our country, but will you find them elsewhere? Remember the New York subway represents an ethnic mixture which you will find nowhere else and it represents a people trying to make their way up, as Mr.
Rosten has said.
DR. SHUSTER: Yes, but now suppose you don’t think
merely in terms of those contemplative efforts which are associated with invention and discovery. Suppose you think only — I will suggest this as a possibility — think of all the people who day in and day out are praying for peace with the Russians and who are centered around these perfectly astonishing developments of contem¬plative activities such as the Abbey at Gethsemane; these, whether they are Catholic or Protestant or Jewish, are basic phenomena in
American life.
MR. ROSTEN: Don’t you think the agnostics pray for
MR. TRRNER: May I suggest with all the people praying for peace I would feel a lot better if there were more creative ac-tivities going on with our decision-makers so that the prayers migh have a better chance of being answered.
DR, SHUSTER: I don’t dissent from that but what I
merely wanted to point out is that when we talk about Americans not

having any respect for contemplative activity we are in my judgment being just a little bit too intellectual about it.
MR. ROSTEN: Well 1 will make a strong plea for the role
of those people who find thinking, imagining, the play of ideas the most useful function that a society can have. It seems to me that, what we are up against now is that the skills of business, the skilk: of negotiation, the skills of the lawyers, as Mr. Lerner points out-
MR, LERNER: The skills of marketability.
MR. ROSThN: The skills of the market and of market suc
cess have failed to solve the most pressing problems we face today, the problem of survival or existence or coexistence, and that what we are waiting for is some triumphant act of imagination on the part of people who can think imaginatively and freshly about problems which heretofore have not yielded to the kind of solution that Mr. Dulles or Mr. Eisenhower or the present government has been able to- offer.
MR, HEFFNER: Mr. Rosten, you sound as though you were very much bitten by that bug that contains that image of America as able to overcome,—
MR. ROSTEN: The American assumes that all problems are
MR. LERNER: Not only that but we do have a hi-tory, Mr.
MR. HEFFNER: In thirty seconds.
MR. LERNER: We do have a history that when we have beer confronted by problems like this in the past we have eventually over come them, but not without the kind of creative effort that welve

been talking about today.
MR„ HEFFNER: Then the image isn’t wrong in your estima
MR. LERNER: The image of survival is there but not the image of omnipotence. I don’t think omnipotence represents the reality.
MR, ROSTEN: If we felt omnipotent we wouldn’t be scared, and I think we’re scared.
MR, HEFFNER: OK, that’s a good note to end on at this point. Thanks so much, Mr. Lerner, Dr. Shuster, Mr, Rosten.
The Open Mind won’t be back next week. We’ll be back in two weeks; See you then.