I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

When I Was Your Age...: The Social Seminar

by Tom Keiser
April 24, 2012

It’s hard to believe that the senior citizens of today and the hippies of yesterday are largely the same people. It’s even harder to believe that the United States government, during the Nixon administration, helped to create a frank, sensitive portrayal of Baby Boomer America as it moved into adulthood.

Produced in 1971 by UCLA in association with the National Institute of Mental Health, The Social Seminar focused on five young adults of diverse backgrounds. In fifteen to twenty minute installments, they paint a better picture of a demographic that was loathed in its early years, yet self-congratulatory in its twilight.

While all but one of the five portraits are of young men, there is diversity in the racial and cultural background of the participants. Common threads between these portraits include the pressures of growing up and the necessity (for most of these subjects) to self-medicate. The sensitive approach to the subjects’ recreational drug use is in drastic contrast to the demonization of drug users over the years. From the 1930’s up to and including the 1960’s, films such as Reefer Madness and TV shows such as Dragnet almost exclusively gave the public well-meaning (if histrionic) warnings against drug use.

The first film in this collection, Changing, involves a young father who becomes a hippie in order to be truer to himself. However, this conflicts with his friends, including one whom he and his wife try and convince to go to marriage counseling. The unnamed protagonist has grown his hair and shrunk his universe, but still working as a truck mechanic. “I was treated more as a son than as an employee.” The protagonist’s own children do not recognize him, and as the parents become more permissive, little Debbie and Danny get into trouble in school. At the end of the film, the young couple are at a crossroads, and seriously consider quitting marijuana to set an example for their impressionable children.

Teddy is in high school, but is already labeled a troublemaker for his participation in student protests. He doesn’t regularly smoke pot because the one time he tried it made him not feel like himself. Active in volunteer and political movements, including VISTA and the Black Panthers, he understands that he has to be himself, and not a cookie-cutter version of Malcolm X. Most importantly, Teddy realizes what has to be done to improve his native Watts, including improving education and nutrition for its citizens. Violence worked in the beginning, but “if we’re going out there with a .45... [the police/the establishment] are going to use a tank”.

Bunny is a student at UCLA where she suddenly realizes that her major (sociology) is not what she wants to do for the rest of her life. A high school graduate at sixteen, Bunny had to grow up fast, especially after her mother divorced and remarried. She has a boyfriend, but isn’t completely committed at this point, and hopes to travel around before she settles and has children. Bunny takes marijuana to connect with the people around her, while her mother disapproves but knows she’s now her own person.

Guy is a 15 year old Chicano, and while he enjoys spending time at the community center, he is otherwise directionless. Guy’s father beat him up all of his life. This escalated from the time Guy started to act out in school until his father left the family. Guy is seen hanging out with his friends, drinking and smoking cigarettes and pot and abusing “reds”, another name for the then-popular barbiturate Seconal. The short film abruptly ends when Guy’s mother tells the filmmaker what he already knows: that Guy is being detained at a juvenile facility on the suspicion of kidnapping and rape.

Tom, 26, grew up in a conservative Catholic household and was introduced to marijuana. Upon the death of his son, an event which he doesn’t mention afterwards, he is given LSD theraputically (which was a common psychiatric practice at the time). He has “dropped out” and taken psychedelic trips dozens of times, yet is trying to drop back into society. His methods for doing this may not be orthodox or well-guided (selling pottery; working somewhere until leaving because they still sell DDT), but he is legitimately trying to adjust to adulthood. That said, he allows the cameras to witness exactly what he goes through during a trip. Tom may be far from a model citizen, but he is miles away from the stereotypical acid junkie, such as the “Blue Boy” from Dragnet 1967.

While watching these documentaries, it’s hard not to ask yourself what ever happened to these people. The youngest, Guy, would be in his mid-50’s by now, and the parents in Changing have to be at least 70. In fact, one commenter for the Changing video on the Internet Archive claims to be Debbie, the young daughter seen being taught with her little brother about drugs: “I love to see that my parents were trying to reach for something different, trying to make changes and going against the conservative norm of their generation.... soul searching. They screwed up, they fell down, they checked out, they got up and they loved and hurt.” Alas, she says nothing about what happened with their lives after filming stopped.

If you are in your mid-to-late 20’s as I am, you start to think about your own parents, who would’ve been around the ages of the people depicted in these films. You wonder what they were going through as they tried to deal with the changes their personal lives were going through. You then see yourself where you are now, and almost worry that your own kids will be a lot like yourself. And then you realize that while youths in different eras wore different clothes and had some different attitudes; that they had (and will have) the same hopes, fears, dreams and challenges that young people do today. If your parents’ generation survived the late 60’s, then your generation can survive today, and those who are being born today will survive whatever they will have to face.

References And Further Reading:

The Social Seminar - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Changing - The Internet Archive. Features the comment by the subjects’ daughter mentioned in this article.

Tom Keiser has written for Network Awesome Magazine, The Awl, and the United Football League website.  He lives in New Jersey, and has a Twitter and a Tumblr.