A Parting Shot

A SENSE OF INCOMPLETENESS dominates as I prepare to graduate from Harvard College. I feel the beginnings of a life style kicking inside me, but I don't feel I've done much living I've rejected a lot--institutions and customs I used to take for granted--but I haven't accepted much in their stead. I graduate from Harvard knowing, or thinking I know, mostly what I don't want.

Not that anyone should care particularly what Harvard has done to me except that I think is has done pretty much the same to a lot of others. Starting out proud because I had gotten into Harvard, I grew more insecure as I learned about the hundreds of others who had, and the thousands of others who might have. Starting out reasonably sure what I wanted to do for a career, I became steadily less so. I was in many ways a typical 1965 freshman: getting drunk on weekends, pulling all-nighters and cutting some classes, primarily to prove my independence from parental authority, partly to get the feel in my gut of a new kind of freedom. And now, I am as typical a 1969 senior: unhappy with the formal education of Harvard College, loathe to go to graduate school, totally uninterested in business, less concerned about a career than about a life, wanting to create and worrying whether I'm capable, wanting to help and wondering how I can. And always asking myself, if not worrying to myself, whether I'll still feel the same dissatisfactions in five years which I feel now.

That I am typical frightens me. The liberal arts education instills a belief in the primacy of the individual, and while I can easily convince myself that I am somehow a member of an elite, I cannot convince myself that I'm an individual within it. The things I have to say about Harvard College, I can find, more or less, already written down--some of them more than a century ago. The tensions which tear at me inside are all documented in Erik Erikson's books; it seems they are tearing at every other adolescent's insides as well. I begin to fear there are no roads not taken.

I--and again here I am more the universal undergraduate I than I would like to be--take refuge in a group. Harvard is unmanageable, and we all have to manage, so we drift or plunge into a group. Harvard the whole place becomes almost as much outside my perimeter as the world beyond it. Unlike some other groups in society, many of the ones at Harvard encourage imagination and creativity--some in fact depend on it for their existence as groups. But even then, it is a circumscribed kind of creativity and it leads to a circumscribed individuality. It is the oneness of the group in relation to the outside. There is an overriding sense of the outside. In a creative individual, too, there is an acute sense of the outside, but at Harvard we have learned it is easier to cope with it in groups.

EACH YEAR the concept of outside grows more important. The professor, that pedant, may be outside. The graduate student section man, perhaps stuffier still, who wants to grow up to be that professor--he's an outsider. That fellow who studies Greek classics for what seems like 12 hours a day in October and November, and the thick-armed house football jock who says, half in jest, that everyone in SDS should be shot--they're outsiders. The SDSer who talks at you for hours without a smile when you wish he would go away--he becomes an outsider. Your parents, your president, your old buddy who didn't go away to college. You start defining the inside in terms of the outside.

Not all groups are the same, of course. Some are strongly cohesive, such as the CRIMSON, SDS, the Loeb, the football team. Others are less well-defined, depending more on mutual interest than mutual action, such as the informal circle of mathematicians or movie-makers. The groups have undefined boundaries. The CRIMSON is close to the Loeb and far from the football team. It was closer to SDS last year than it is now. The concept of outside is dynamic. Its flow is the chart of a Harvard education.

But there is a hardening of walls. Each group builds up an unflattering vocabulary about other groups. A member of one finds himself communicating little with members of somewhat distant groups, and not at all with more distant ones.

This is not to say that within the group, the basic unit of College life, there is harmony. The group is the framework for thought and experience, but the members often disagree with each other. A black student told me recently that earlier this year the blacks suffered from strong differences within their ranks. In general, younger blacks wanted to take more radical action against the University, and older ones wanted to cool it, to wait and see if the University would come around to their position on the creation of an Afro-American studies program. But despite the tensions, it was a black question and they kept it to themselves. The black community is only the most extreme example of groupism which almost everyone at Harvard experiences.

THE GROUPISM is physical too. It's appropriate that Harvard has no student center. Everyone has a physical niche. Mine is at 14 Plympton St.; if things or I had been different, it could have been at the pinball machine in Tommy's, in the stacks of Widener, in the IAB pool, in the house dining hall long after the trays have been cleared, or making movies in Carpenter Center, or watching them at the Brattle. Every January and every May we all creep out of our niches and pile book upon book onto our outstretched mind and carry the whole precarious pile, maybe 20 tottering books high into Emerson 105, take a seat, and for three hours pull out one book from somewhere in the middle and then another, like the old table cloth trick, and then the bell rings and you drop all the books on the floor and so much for formal education until next year.

So much, also, for Harvard-wide bonds. In exams, and only in exams, we share a common interest in Harvard; Harvard does roughly the same thing to all of us, and we all cope with what Harvard is doing to us in pretty much the same way. The spirit of football fails to reach a great many students; so does the spirit of confrontation politics. It is only in the exam period that all Harvard students are dealing with the Harvard, and for each, it is the worst of Harvard because it is a crisis; when the crisis subsides we make better--or at least more pleasant and dignified--use of our energies.

Crisis plays the same role in the real outside, the outside beyond Harvard to the extent that we can see it. A crisis situation, with what seems like no good way out, binds incredibly diverse subgroups of our generation.

Nationwide, our separate niches are so much further apart, so much more mutually exclusive than at Harvard, that Harvard almost blurs into unity. What do I know of rural midwestern 20-year-olds? Of sons of established Mississippi landowners? Of black high school dropouts in urban ghettoes? Even of sons of lower middle class workers? I know virtually nothing of them. Most times I have nothing to do with them. But we share a crisis.

THE CRISIS is not just the draft for the war in Vietnam, though that is the most immediate symbol of it for those of us who "have it so good." The crisis is finding a way to live. It is a crisis faced by Harvard seniors, and by high school seniors in a ghetto who can't go to college. Do I fight for my country? Do I work for it? Do I ignore it? Do I try to change it? Do I work against it? Do I proceed alone, or share with others, and how many others? Will ever stop feeling so leaden-lazy; will ever find something I want to do?

Once you've made the decisions and arranged for them to be irrevocable, once you no longer feel the crisis, you find yourself in one or another group. Until you make it, as long as you feel the crisis pressing on you and ruining what seems like the best days, you are more bound to than separated from the others who share your crisis.

To the extent that we are bound together, and I think it is more this year than in the past few, it is a bond of malaise induced by distress: persistent distress about the paucity of good options among the plethora of available ones.

If there is anything special about Harvard it is only that it leaves us with even more available options than most have, and does something to you during your four years that makes you perceive the paucity more acutely; Harvard pulls hard at both ends, and you are left hurting in the middle.