VOLUNTARY WITHDRAWALS: APPROVED BY UNIVERSITY, BENEFICIAL TO STUDENTS
Granting a Leave of Absence is an Almost Automatic Action By the Administration, as is Readmission upon Return
"I have the impression that a year in the oilfields is one of Harvard's most valuable contributions to a college education," --McGeorge Bundy, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
The commonly accepted reasons for leaving college are not applicable to the Harvard student. He is expected to, and usually does, complete his college training within the normal four year program. To a greater extent than at most other colleges, Harvard's four year program is a formalized, patterned period of time. At many other colleges, only about 25 per cent of the original entering class graduates; and many of its members do not graduate with their class.
In contrast, at Harvard over ninety percent of those entering the college graduate, a greater percentage than that of any other college in the United States. By far the greatest proportion of these do so in the normal four-year program. It is socially unusual to leave Harvard. Many people, however, do leave this college before they graduate, and a great many others consider leaving at some time during their college career. The decision to leave is regarded as a serious one by most of those making it, reflecting the degree of seriousness with which most of those people regard Harvard.
The student wanting to leave Harvard in the past was not considered "unusual" at all. In fact, the University once provided an institutionalized program for this. The Harvard term for time spent on a leave of absence is still "rustication." This term has its origins in the nineteenth century, when Harvard owned a farm in Concord where people taking a leave from college could work. The farm is no longer available, but the student wishing to leave is still very much a part of Harvard.
In the class of 1956, out of the 1215 people originally admitted, 283 withdrew. Two hundred fifty-five of the 1150 people composing the class of 1957 did not graduate on schedule. Of those leaving, less than half were forced to withdraw by the Administration. There is no reason to think these classes untypical.
Those leaving of their own accord are categorized under several different headings: withdrawals for medical reasons, for financial reasons, for military service, for transferral or the all inclusive "for personal reasons." With the possible exception of the approximately 25 people withdrawing for medical reasons each year, the rest can be considered voluntary drop-outs who leave "for personal reasons."
Once a student decides to leave, there is little to detain him. All he must do is talk with his senior tutor, who will rarely try to dissuade him from his intention. Granting a leave of absence is an almost automatic administrative act, as is being readmitted when and if the student decides to return.
Why a student, unpressured by academic requirements or the Administration, decides to leave is a most interesting problem. There has been some study made of this phenomenon by the psychiatrists at the Department of Hygiene. The major study was that on the Class of 1956 by Dr. Graham B. Blaine and Dr. Charles C. McArthur. Extensive information was compiled on the class, its withdrawals, where these people spent their time, and how many came back. Most of the people who left were interviewed by these psychiatrists.
The most intensive study done within this group was a comparison of 44 students who did leave to an equal number who finished Harvard in four years. The family backgrounds, geographical origin, preparatory school background, medical history, personal difficulties, College Board scores and the future plans, of both groups were compared.
As a scientific study, this revealed no discernible difference between those people who left and those who stayed. Dr. Blaine comments, "We found no difference in any category, except that of the report of the physicians' examination made at entrance. The examining internist had doubts about 18 of the 44 people who dropped out, and only about seven of the 44 who stayed."
Even if the study did not definitively answer why people tended to drop out of Harvard, it did give the psychiatrists their own personal ideas about the drop-out. Dr. Blaine thinks the drop-out is much more academically and esthetically oriented than the average student.
McArthur gave Rohrshach tests to both groups of 44. His conclusions from these tests were that the people leaving were generally emotionally constricted; able to be classified neither as extroverted nor as introverted, merely as having no emotional effect. He describes this person as uncommunicative, as unable to ask for help. "This kind of person does not see the Bureau of Study Counsel, the Psychiatric Services, or see his advisor. If he does go to these places, he only goes once or twice."
McArthur qualifies his generalizations by saying that there are not enough facts to be entirely sure of his position. "If all these facts were cross-verified, I might be all wrong," he frankly admits. "My description does not even apply to all of those who voluntarily leave. My ideas represent an over-simplified syndrome, the quintessence of the behavior pattern," he adds.
More than any other University official, however, McArthur has formed an interesting and developed description of people who voluntarily leave Harvard. "These people don't come to anyone's attention while they're at Harvard; they're neutral and don't offend anyone. They never give the impression of being in trouble; always being sunny and affable; when they do leave, even their roommates are usually surprised." The life of these people, McArthur thinks, is somewhat vegetable-like. "My guess is that they probably don't get up for breakfast and are apt to cut a lot of classes. These people become tremendously apathetic immediately before they leave, more so than they ever will be again in their lives. Their decision to leave is the fist step into a more vigorous, healthy life and they feel better the instant they make it. I myself, view these people as a Charlie Chaplain at the end of a movie walking down the road with a stick over his shoulder."
"These people," he continues, "are often very concerned about their own identity, who they are, and if Harvard has any meaning to this identity. Most of them view their problem in physically overwhelming terms, that of ordering their cosmos, of finding their place in the the universe. Sometimes there are other questions, such as "Am I a homosexual?' but these are only sub-forms; the main question is asked in cosmological terms. When they do come back to Harvard the reaction to these questions might be summarized, 'I still wonder about all that, but it doesn't matter as much.'"
The problem of explaining why some students leave Harvard is almost an impossible one. "My guess," McArthur says, "is that a lot of these guys have prior business, sometimes within themselves. Sometimes this prior business is in the old neighborhood; they suffer from 'anomie' in coming from one culture to another. One person I knew who left used to commute back to the Bronx every weekend 'to see real people.' The cultural difference between Massachusetts and New Mexico is astonishing. Many people leave because they feel that they must touch home base. They don't want the 'You Can't Go Home Again' feeling. Leaving for this reason is very wise.
"However, sometimes the prior business is in the family. People want to find out what their parents or their brothers or sisters are doing back home.
"What we don't know is what causes a person to be emotionally constricted, and unable to ask for help. We know that the private school boys tend to be more emotionally constricted. These people never really become American Legion types, but they do greatly improve. We also know that the acting-out types tend to get fired from college, but we do not know what causes a person to be unable to ask for help. Most Harvard men are so articulate, that when they bleed, they bleed all over. The average Harvard neurotic seeks help from 25 or 30 sources.
"Perhaps the basic answer", McArthur concludes, "is that the person who leaves really does not feel that college is a normal thing to do. What they really want to gain by leaving is a complete adult status."
Dr. Blaine calls this unwillingness to ask for help "a peculiarly good structure. The kind who drops out, is right in doing so. This does not hinder his graduation; it makes it possible."
All the Administrative people who come into contact with those leaving largely find that they cannot make generalizations about the type. This would seem to indicate that even if the psychiatrists' description of the people leaving is largely correct, it is certainly incomplete. Drs. Blaine and McArthur would be the first to admit this. Most University administrators coming into contact with people leaving feel that the decision to do so results from a feeling of lack of purpose and direction at Harvard.
Elliott Perkins, Master of Lowell House, who thinks the person who leaves voluntarily more introspective than the average student, is an articulate example of the University attitude. "In all the voluntary withdrawals the man feels he is not utilizing his opportunities as he should. He wants to study and can't. Or if he isn't a student type, he feels he should be having a worthwhile extracurricular life and isn't. Predominant in all these people is the awareness that one can have only four years at Harvard. They often leave at mid-term, because they think if they stay for finals, they'll lost the term completely."
Zeph Stewart, Allston Burr Senior Tutor of Adams House, concurs with Perkins' emphasis on the importance of the shortness of the four year period in student thinking. "College years are so important. The worst thing is that going to college can't be redone. If the college years are wasted they are irrevocably wasted. Students who feel this intensely and who find that they are not getting enough out of the place or who are unhappy often leave."
Dean Watson finds that many of the students who leave, have come back here with a fixed notion of what they will do in life, such as going to medical school. "They don't want to do what they originally intended and feel they have to leave out what they really want to do. Another group of students who often leave are the underachievers, who leave because they feel they have wasted their time."
Carroll F. Miles, Allston Burr Senior Tutor of Dunster House, has defined somewhat unique reasons for leaving: "The curious type is the student who leaves in January of his senior year. This is a person who is potentially bright but who has done nothing in college. He wants to go away in order that he can come back and have one great year. In some cases, usually seniors, students leave to postpone their occupational choice another year. Of course, sophomore year is the crucial one for most, a natural time to leave."
More sophomores leave Harvard voluntarily than in any other year of their college career. This is in part attributable to the recognized "sophomore slump" which often consists of having to make a choice of how one is going to conduct one's college life. John H. Finley, Jr., Master of Eliot House, suggests that part of the reason for the great sophomore exodus may be the disillusionment sophomores initially feel for House life.
In most cases, if a student's reason for leaving seems at all valid, he is usually supported in his decision to leave by Administrative officials. John U. Monro, Director of Financial Aid, says, "I give three cheers when people want to leave. I encourage people to leave because it gives them a different and better perspective."
Perry G.E. Miller is one enthusiastic exponent of leaving, who left his own college for a three-year period. "I encourage people to leave generally," he states. "I loved my years out of college, they were far more important to me than college would have been. I knew what I wanted when I came back. I have the impression that many more people left college in my generation than they do now. We felt freer from economic and graduate school pressure in the 'Twenties.
"Today I sense in the people wanting to leave some vague yearning for the vagabond life, a wanting to run away from it all. I think the worst reason in the world for leaving is to get some experience to use for writing."
"When the student decides to leave, the first Administration official he usually consults in his senior tutor. His senior tutor is usually sympathetic; one, Miles, states his position in this manner:
"I try to accept the decision of the person wanting to leave, but if I think his position unwise I tell him so. If a man says he wants to withdraw to mature I tell him that's nonsense. He must have a more positive purpose. I often get students who want to be told why they shouldn't leave."
Another Senior Tutor, Stewart, says, "My feeling is that anybody who really doesn't feel he should be here, should leave, except if he wants to leave because he thinks he's going to flunk the course. My feeling is that leaving is like constructing a building--often you must go back to get materials to complete the structure, a background to finish college."
Advice given freshmen about leaving is not quite so encouraging as that to upperclassmen. F. Skiddy von Stade, Dean of Freshmen, defines the role of his office: "In the first few weeks of the freshman year we encourage them to give college a try; as the year goes on we tend to be more and more lenient. However, if they get along until December or April, we try to urge them to salvage their term." The problem in the freshman year, however, is not particularly great. Only about twenty-five freshmen voluntarily withdraw each year.
The attitude of the leaver's fellow students is often as enthusiastic as that of the Administration. A student leaving often symbolizes the unfulfilled wishes of others, and is often regarded as a hero by the discontent minority. While in the process of leaving, he will hear from other students: "I would like to leave myself, I just don't have the guts." There is, however, a large group who do not ever wish to drop out of Harvard and cannot see why anyone else would want to make such a choice.
By far the most hostile attitude towards leaving is usually that of the student's parents. "Most parents feel that leaving college will be the end of their son's education, and often violently oppose such an act," Stewart notes. Perkins supports Stewart's statement, relating an experience in which the mother of a mentally healthy boy who wanted to leave asked him: "Is my boy crazy?" Parents often feel that, after their own financial sacrifice, their sons will never again be able to get into the groove of college life.
People who would otherwise leave are often restrained by parental pressure, by a fear that they will not be admitted to graduate school if they leave, or by thinking that their act would not be approved by the Administration. Harvard's more selective admissions policy does not permit as cavalier an attitude towards leaving as existed in previous decades. As Perry Miller said, "I don't even know if I would leave if I were a student now."
After these students leave, what do they do? Of those in the class of '56 who left and were readmitted, 64 percent had worked, 34 percent had been in the Armed Services, and 2 percent had either attended another university or traveled. The Administrative Board requests a successful work or service record for readmission, which undoubtedly influences the vocational choices of those who leave.
Of those who worked during their interim period, a surprising number went to sea. Many others, McArthur maintains, were content with a rather negative self-image in their choice of vocation, often working in jobs like that of a short-order cook.
Seemingly, the most beneficial way to spend one's leave of absence, at least in regards to successful performance upon re-entrances, was to be in the Armed Services. McArthur thinks the Service may be the best solution. The benefits of the Army seem to be that there is much time for contemplation, that the Army offers an ordered and directed life, and that Army life is so unpleasant that upon re-entering one can better tolerate the mild restrictions of Harvard.
Some of those who leave, however, spent their time in Cambridge. This is hardly thought an adequate solution. Miles says, "I would like to adopt the Oxford plan: those leaving being prohibited from coming closer than three miles of the city. I do not regard working for J. August as a good way to spend one's leave of absence."
Dr. Blaine thinks that students