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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Little Boxes": a warning against blind conformity

Malvina Reynolds' Daly City-inspired song seems to have been taken to heart soon after by students of her alma mater.

I'm writing this post back in my apartment in Berkeley, something I haven't done since the night my fall semester ended on December 14 (my choice that night was Jon Batiste's "FREEDOM"). Between now and then, I've written a lot and worked even more, and I've also started my last semester at Cal with two weeks of online classes. I will say, I will not miss that experience — a semester and a half over the course of my collegiate career is more than enough.

As I was being driven back across the Bay, I reflected on the college experience — both my own and in general — and I also took note of passing through the suburb of Daly City. In recent days, I had been reminded of a song which combined discussions of both to relay a message about conformity which sounds pleasant enough on the surface, but is rather unnerving when examined in any detail. The song is called "Little Boxes," and it was written and composed in 1962 by Malvina Reynolds. Pete Seeger's version a year later was much more popular, but I decided to go with Reynolds' version because she earned her bachelor's, master's, and doctorate from UC Berkeley. To that, I say 1) Go Bears, and 2) let's listen.

As someone very familiar with Daly City — and whose family lived there for a few years before I came around — I hear the opening of "Little Boxes" and instantly understand Reynolds' cynicism. She particularly resented the tightly packed tract housing in the Westlake neighborhood, which blanketed the hillside in uniform boxes. She notes that they are "made out of ticky-tacky," cheap materials that builders used as they prioritized suburban growth over structural integrity, then subsequently notes their sameness. The two-line statement of these facts closes most of the song's verses and divisions.

Reynolds criticizes the boxes and what they represent for setting off a cycle of conformity in the burgeoning middle class. As she sees it, the parents who buy and reside in those uniform boxes produce uniform children, who continue the cycle. I'm particularly interested in the lens she puts toward the university, which she cites as an establishment that likewise puts people in boxes. Part of her critique seems to be toward the parents for allowing their children to be so easily swallowed up by the system, while the brunt of the blame still rests upon the structure itself.

Interestingly, within a year of the release of Seeger's version of "Little Boxes," students at Reynolds' alma mater (Go Bears!) began to protest against the powers that control them, advocating for freedom of speech alongside greater academic freedoms. Perhaps the Free Speech Movement — its aims punctuated by Mario Savio's "bodies upon the gears" speech on the Sproul Hall steps that now bear his name — is just what the doctor ordered for those in Reynolds' camp to see that the next generation was not complacent and would not be satisfied with being boxed in. Nearly six decades on, the university environment continues to be more and more open, with students assuming increasing roles in creating its culture. I personally feel empowered in my place as a student; even with my financial responsibilities to the school, I more than retain my cognitive and academic freedom, which I strive to continue using to make a better world for myself and others.

With the above in mind, I hear "Little Boxes" as a relic of pre-Free Speech Movement thought in the Bay Area. Of course, that doesn't mean its warning should be disregarded now. It remains easy to fall into complacency if one doesn't actively warn against it; thus, responsibility rests on parents and other mentors to guide children toward thinking for themselves, so that they may pass on the value of doing so to the generation following them. This cycle would more than counteract the one against which Reynolds sings.


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