Ten Years After the Strike

KIDS THESE DAYS

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.