Ten Years After the Strike


AFTER 1969 the choices were never so easy. Sure, there was a period of blind backlash in the mid-'70s when a clear career and a six of beer were enough, when students consciously avoided activism and experimentation that could mess them up, the way acid or cops or just rage had messed up their older brothers or sisters or friends. But the Strike and the general revolt against rules of the late '60s have, ten years later, left a conspicuous legacy: increased personal freedom, skepticism about the University's idea that it can stand aloof from the world it studies, and a strong concern among students about the consequences of their personal decisions for themselves and for a society with contracting horizons.

The present senior class arrived at Harvard six years after the Strike, a year after Nixon resigned, and half a year after the last American helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. It arrived with a certain lack of faith in large institutions' abilities to do good, a certain belief that individuals could change those institutions only slowly and deliberately, and a certain feeling that one has to cover one's own ass. The year of the students' arrival--1975--has been remembered by administrators and undergraduate advisers as one of the peak years of pre-professionalism, the New Mood on Campus, the swing back away from the upset and disillusionment of the period remembered as "the Sixties" but more properly identified as the late '60s and early '70s. (1961, after all, was the year of the Latin Riots at Harvard, when students marched, chanting "Latin Si! Pusey No!", to protest then-President Nathan M. Pusey '28's decision to grant degrees in English rather than Latin. 1962 was the year of American Graffitti--where were you?)

By the mid-'70s, campus stringers for the major news media were finding lean fare in student activism, and so they started writing about how college kids those days held proms and swilled alcohol and joined fraternities and Republican clubs. And liked it. Undergraduate interest in Economics at Harvard was picking up about then, as was undergraduate interest in joining the corporate fold. There had been days of rage and even years of outrageous behavior, but kids would, after all, be kids. The watchers called it the New Mood, but it was really the old mood, which was no particular mood at all.

But lasting changes have come out of the Sixties. Campus activism is muted, and more carefully directed, but very present. The deans and House masters have relinquished control over students' private lives. And there is an awareness that the old career tracks are not necessarily either the best or the most fulfilling courses for the young to take. Today the intention to go to business school is announced, as often as not, with a shrug or a joke about becoming a "corporate fascist." And pre-meds--in the most rigorous of pre-professional tracks--work as hard as ever. Yet there is a general reluctance in most fields to jump into a lifelong career too quickly--a trend shown by rising numbers of students choosing to live and work on their own before going on to grad school.

ON MY THIRD day at Harvard, in the fall of 1975, I went upstairs in my dorm to get advice from a woman who seemed to have a strong grasp on her intended course of study. I was wondering whether I should take a certain chemistry course; she was a pre-med, and thus seemed a logical person to ask. We talked about my problem for a while, and then she told me she was trying to decide whether to take an introductory calculus course that would repeat a course she had taken in high school but had not understood very well.

I said, "Why not? If you're going on in science you might as well make sure of your math."

She said, "Yes, but if a medical school looks at my high school transcript and then my Harvard transcript, they're going to wonder why I took the course twice."

"What medical school is going to look at your high school transcript? That will be long forgotten."

"Most don't, but Harvard Med does."

I was startled. "How do you know?"

"It says so on the' application form."

"When did you get the application form?"

"Last spring."

This woman was a little scary, and I didn't find much more occasion to talk with her, but she epitomized the pre-professionalism of the times. Since the '60s, with the exception of those taking the business school route, the numbers of students choosing to become doctors and lawyers and such have not changed much--but the intensity with which they pursue their goals has. Starting in 1972, the percentage of graduating seniors planning to go on to careers in business climbed from a low of 6 per cent to a high of 15 per cent in 1976, as the corporate world lost some of the repugnance to students that it had during the war. Likewise, the percentage planning careers in government and politics climbed from 2 per cent in 1972 to 7 per cent last year. The percentages of seniors planning to go into law and medicine has stayed roughly the same--both a little under 20 per cent.

L. Fred Jewett '57, dean of admissions and financial aid, who lived in the Yard from 1958 to 1976, points out that in the '50s and early '60s graduate schools and professional schools were an "easy assumption" for Harvard undergrads. By 1975 the choice was a more conscious one, and downturns in the economy placed a further question mark beside any career plans. Jewett recalls that not only freshmen, but even high school applicants asked frequently about the road to professional school--students were "more conservative, less adventurous, and less willing to do something that could put them out on a limb." Between 1971 and 1974 the percentage of graduating seniors who were undecided about their career goals plummeted from 26 to 4. You paid your money, picked your track, and locked in. Zeph Stewart, master of Lowell House from 1963 to 1975, remembers 1975 as a high point of good feeling between students and faculty.

Although with the end of the draft it became possible for a man to take time off from College and not end up in a rice paddy carrying an M-16, there was a pervasive feeling in the early years of the decade--especially among the strongly pre-professional--that leave-taking displayed some kind of weakness or foolish vacillation. Deborah Hughes-Hallet, who has taught math and advised undergraduates in the sciences since 1969, says that even now, when she suggests that undecided students take leaves of absence, "they almost invariably draw themselves up to their full height and say, 'I'm not like that.'"

MORE RECENTLY, however, students' fears of becoming non-functional societal units have diminished. The number of students taking leaves in each class has grown steadily from 282 in the Class of '75, to 414, or one-quarter, in the Class of '78. The number of graduates undecided about their eventual careers has climbed back up to about 10 per cent. And last year, for the first time in memory, the percentage of graduates planning to work immediately after graduation exceeded the percentage planning to go on immediately to graduate study--42 per cent versus 38 per cent--even though most still plan to go on to graduate school eventually.

The numbers show a growing willingness to experiment, to try out different possibilities before fixing permanently on a certain advanced degree, or title, as a goal. Jewett's impressions agree; he has the feeling that pre-professionalism peaked a year or two ago. And so it is now, following the reaction and retrenchment of the mid-'70s, that the lasting impact on students of the earlier rebellion is really felt.

The student uprising of the '60s took place at two levels. At the same time The Crimson was editorializing against American involvement in Vietnam, it was blasting a College parietal system that restricted the hours and the terms of women's visits to Harvard men's rooms. When University Hall was occupied ten years ago, strikers and reactionaries alike had to wear coats and ties to dinner if they expected to be served, and all women lived at the Quad. Much of the business of the College in the mid-'60s was conducted at black-tie dinners held once a month, where the dean of the Faculty and the masters of the Houses made decisions over brandy and cigars. Students lashed out at authority not only at the national level--at which lies about the war were obvious and frequent and were symbolized by campus manifestations such as ROTC--but also at the level dominated by deans, and college rules and regulations.

The Strike focused on political questions. Students succeeded in forcing ROTC's removal from campus, and in getting an Afro-American Studies Department established. But much of the Strike's drive came from more ill-defined urges to topple figures of authority. W.C. Burriss Young '55, associate dean of freshmen, and another long-time Yard resident, remembers being thrown out of University Hall by two students--one of whom he knew very well. Young asked, "Why are you doing this?" The student was crying as he seized Young, and said simply, "I've got to, I've got to." The movement countered establishment codes with its own, often unreasoning, standards of conduct; but it also widened the choices open to a later, more calculating, generation of students. John C. Marquand, senior tutor of Dudley House since 1970, describes the change as a shift in the College administration, a move to a "less interventionist" policy regarding student' private lives. Students now have less of a feeling of being manipulated by authority, he says.

THE FREEDOMS GAINED by students over the past decade, the ending of the draft, the decentralization of many University decisions, have all cut down on the emotional drive and immediacy of student activist movements. Student groups working for change today tend to choose their goals more carefully and deliberately than their predecessors of ten years ago; and the chances for serious, violent confrontation are much smaller. Post-Watergate kids grew up with a certain thick-skinned cynicism: a lot of The System is venal, maybe most of it, but it's no use bashing your head against it to make it change.

The current Mood on Campus isn't total apathy. That was proven by the march and midnight rally of 3500 undergraduates last spring to protest Harvard's holdings in corporations doing business in racist South Africa. But when the Harvard Corporation budges only a little, students aren't willing to take the step to violence, to physical expulsion of deans or Corporation officials. Brandeis had a building takeover this spring; Harvard probably won't, even though student demands on South Africa aren't being met.

There were a couple of years, during the peak rush on professional schools, when the only radicals around were those sad-looking members of the Spartacus Youth League hawking the Worker's Vanguard outside the north gates of the Yard. That's changed. Students are again taking interest in the morality of the Corporation, the system in which they will work, and the place of individuals within that system. Their voices are less strident now, their own lives not on the line as they were ten years ago. The torchlight march last spring, after all, included more than a few clubbies who drifted up to the Yard with drinks in their hands to join the line out of curiosity and amusement.

Campus activism has become something of an institution. But kids these days stand too aloof to be galvanized behind any institution that won't take care of them in turn. The sense of community remembered by almost all who were involved in the turmoil of the Sixties won't be revived in the near future.

Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, who was himself ejected from University Hall ten years ago, says that ever since 1969 he has found students in a dialogue with the Strike, trying to understand their relationship to it. And although Epps prefers not to talk about his own experiences during the takeover and the Strike, you can be sure he, too, is still thinking about it. The copy of The Harvard Strike on his shelf is well-worn.

THE REASONS why students were willing to take their commitments so far in 1969 is still not completely clear. The draft and the Vietnam War were triggers for their activism, but that could not have been the reason for student uprisings in the late '60s in Germany, Italy and France. Larger forces were at work. Now, the cycle has swung around again, toward a greater interest in social issues. But now the interest is tempered. There's no war to hate, no Dick Nixon to hate. The president of the University has learned the usefulness of being a moving target. Authority is more diffuse, the issues concerning students more complex. Students surprised both administrators and themselves last spring by their ability to focus opposition on corrupt and corrupting economic forces on the other side of the world--but that opposition may prove difficult to sustain. The driving forces of 1969 are absent.

The Sixties have left students with many more freedoms, and many more questions than can be easily answered. None of the old sources of authority and knowledge are completely trusted. But if students continue to cultivate their freedoms and continue to pose the questions, the rage unleashed ten years ago will not have been senseless, or wasted.