The out-of-touch audience

First off, I know the '60s are over. I now want to cringe, and sometimes do, when I hear certain popular songs from that period shrilly asking me to ''change ... and rearrange the world.'' Give me a break.

I'm not prepared to forget the '60s, however. Too much went down, as they said, during those years. Though at the time I was just a little brother, knee high to a draft notice, I feel as if my roots were formed during the tumult of the Tet offensive, Twiggy, Tiny Tim, Spiro Agnew, civil rights, Woodstock, and the space race.

What I'm surprised to find today, especially in people who are even younger than me, and who seem to have little visceral understanding of the '60s, is an inclination to reject the decade out of hand as hardly more than transcendental naivete let loose - a long-running party. It's enough to make you wonder sometimes if Abbie Hoffman's revisionist motto, ''Don't trust anyone under 30,'' doesn't have some truth to it.

My concern began about a year ago when I phoned, of all places, the Department of Sociology at Berkeley, where so much of the '60s action took place. I was doing a feature story on people who have an active (though perhaps quiet) commitment to the principles involved in loving one's neighbor, peacemaking, business ethics, the elevation of the race. A certain professor at Berkeley would have some perspective, I had been told.

The call was taken by a young graduate student who said the professor was no longer on campus. She didn't know where he was. Trying to enlist her help, I explained the project I was working on. She was immediately put off. In a tone that blended simple disgust with a severe form of pity she said, ''Oh no ... sounds like a '60s replay ... I mean, values and everything ... haven't we gotten beyond all that?''

Her tone was so academically assured that I immediately rejoined, ''Do you think so? Where would you say we have gotten to?'' That she didn't know.

What surprised me even more was the recent experience of seeing ''The Graduate'' (1967 Academy Award winner for best direction) at a Harvard Square theater filled with local students.

Not to be unduly solemn, at the beginning of the film when the main character , Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), comes down the airport terminal escalator with Simon and Garfunkel's ''The Sounds of Silence'' playing in the background, I know I am about to see a motion picture that, in 1984, has definite historical overtones. Through satire and symbol it documents a society in which many individuals were, knowingly or unknowingly, becoming automated - molded into lifeless ''plastic'' roles. And the moral conflict in the film is incredible, right to the final scene. ''The Graduate'' became a metaphoric statement of the times.

How disappointing, then, to sit with a student audience unable, it seemed, to respond to the film with much more than sloppy guffaws.

Not that the film isn't funny. It's very funny. Yet partway through, it was clear that this audience was identifying only with one side of Ben - his ability to slam tradition, as if slamming something were a virtue in itself. There seemed to be little sensitivity to the historical context in which Ben was asking his questions, was feeling alienated and lost. When Mr. Braddock angrily asks Ben what ''those four years at college were all about,'' and Ben answers, ''You got me,'' the theater was filled not with laughter - either measured or sympathetic - but with a kind of mindless jeering.

Ben's unspoken questions about purpose and honesty were meant to be serious questions. Meant, ultimately, to be the audience's questions. This crowd though, seemed to see the film as entertainment only. The moral edge in the film - or, more accurately, its footnotes to history seemed lost or ignored.

I'm probably overreacting, I decided as I left the theater. But on the street outside, a fellow who looked to be in his 30s, and who had also come out of the theater, brushed past me, talking with his friend. ''I just couldn't believe how out of touch that audience was,'' he said.

After hearing this comment, I thought of the womenfolk in Steinbeck's ''Grapes of Wrath'' who discover they must leave their family heirlooms behind in the dust bowl of the 1930s: ''Without our things, how will we know who we are?'' they ask.

Certainly some things are best left behind. Not historical memory, though - the context of the decisions of our forebears. How else are we to know the truth of our own place?

The circumstances also brought to mind the Soviet Union, where the true historical memory is systematically wiped out - as the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko recently testified after witnessing a young Siberian girl raise her glass in honor of Joseph Stalin.

Walking out of the theater into the beautiful dazzle of Harvard Square in the evening, I could hardly imagine a loss of historical memory in the United States similar to the one Yevtushenko laments. After all, we are free. Here were street musicians blowing harmonicas; professors dodging breakdancers; vendors hawking 10 different newspapers; and the ever-present clusters of energetic students. Would these people ever accept censorship?

Not likely. Here, a loss of that memory important to the life of the culture would have to happen more subtly - less through overt repression, and more by a slow falling asleep. By declaring certain vital questions out of date.

Across the square from the theater, the old buildings of the university were waiting out another night. Behind and above them, the brilliant white chapel spire rose like a sword into the blackness. Worlds have changed and rearranged around these venerable ivied structures. And from inside them, such ''idealistic'' questions as ''What is just?,'' ''What is possible?,'' ''What informs the heart?,'' and ''What is sacred?,'' have been asked for generations.

These questions, still so important (and generally unanswered) today, seemed to have been reborn during the decade of the 1960s. Benjamin Braddock certainly staked his claim on them - though in the end we never know what answers he finds.

Unless we were supposed to wait 20 years or so, and ask each other.

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