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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Research Project Helps J.D.'s By Tape-Recording Their Views

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

The crime rate of 30 hardened delinquents was halved by a Harvard research project designed not to convert but to gather data.

About four years ago, the project, called "Streetcorner Research," began to pay the deliquents 50 cents to $2 an hour for talking into a tape recorder about themselves. Each boy had between two and five interviews a week for some nine months, and then left--some to new jobs, some to the armed services, others to school. A few wound up back in prison.

But a three-year follow-up study shows that the delinquency rate of the group, after quitting the project, was half that of a control group. The average number of arrests for the Streetcorner group was 2.4, compared with 4.7 for the control groups; the total months in prison: 69 for the Streetcorner boys, 134 for the control delinquents.

The director of Streetcorner Research was Ralph Schwitzgebel, a former Harvard graduate student. He took over the project from its founder. Charles W. Slack, who left Harvard for an assistant professorship at the University of Alabama.

Talk About Future

The success of Streetcorner Research in curbing delinquency stems from the group's experimental activity: tape recorded sessions in which the boys talked about their homes, parents, friends, the police, and so on. Talking about themselves, the boys began to think about themselves, about what they had done, about the future.

The project was named after its first location: a store front at the corner of Bow St. and Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge.

Of the 30 delinquents who worked for Streetcorner Research, 25 were known to the courts and 20 had spent six months or more in prison or reform school. Fifteen were gang members, only four had held a job longer than six months, and only one had graduated from high school.

Among them, they had been guilty of assault, rape and other sex offenses, drunkenness, breaking and entering, and possession of firearms. Here, according to one subject, speaking on tape, is a typical day in the life of one of these boys:

"I can tell you what they do every day. I can tell you the whole life of 50 different boys. They don't work.... They get up town about 8 o'clock, and they hang around, bum money and booze, and play pool, and watch people play pool--watch people that's got jobs, got money, play pool. See it they can bum a pool game.... About 12 o'clock they'll go home and change clothes and come back up for the evening. Then they'll go down and dance some, then get drunk and stay out late.... They's always out for the trouble. And they're tomorrow's nothings.... Sop booze. My gang'd be there, and I'd have on my black leather jacket--Hell's Lost Angels on it. Man, that wasn't one or two hours a day; that was all the time...."

Why did these boys volunteer for Streetcorner Research? "Few, if any, self-respecting, serious offenders will voluntarily talk to psychiatrists, probation officers, counselors, or social workers," Schwitzgebel said. "The boys came to Streetcorner Research primarily, of course, for the money. But they also came because the job looked easy and interesting.

"They came because they were treated neither as criminals nor as patients but as subjects or consultants in a research project that had prestige and excitement. It reminded them of being experimental subjects in medicine or aviation. Each felt he was taking a risk and, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he was taking a risk and, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he was doing something worthwhile. The boys were so enthusiastic, we found we could select for employment nearly any gang leader or other boy likely to be causing trouble in the surrounding area."

The job as research subject held considerable gang prestige; a more serious problem turned out to be the resentment of gang members not asked to participate in the research project. By paying the boys for their work and by giving them small extra bonuses at the right time, the experimenters gradually taught their subjects, without exception, at attend appointments regularly and on time--no small triumph in itself.

From Apathy to Insight

The experimenters noticed that the hours and hours of a boy's thoughts and feelings, collected on tape over a period of nine months to a year, typically passed through six stages: apathy, anger, despair, insight, and transformation.

Following is a brief discussion of each of these stages, along with excerpts from tape recordings made by one subject, David, an 18-years-old-boy who had been described as "unreachable" and "psychopathic," who had run away from home shortly after his release from reform school, and whose police record showed breaking and entering, drunkenness, rape, assault, and larceny.

* APAHY: During the first few hours of interview, David talked about how bad prison is, how the cops--and fate--are against him. When the boy began to run out of complaints, the experimenter suggested topics that might be important to the boy, so that he would gradually move toward talking about himself.

* ANGER: The boy realizes he can talk without being criticized. His language becomes hostile toward his family, the experimenter, the law, and social customs. Arriving at the laboratory for his fourth meeting, David called the experimenter's tie "the crummiest" he had even seen. Later, looking out the window, he saw some construction workers, "See that guy out there? Going to mash his mouth in."

* DESPAIR: This period usually began after three to eight weeks, and proved to be the most difficult for both subject and experimenter. The boy expressed loneliness, depression, sorrow, and sometimes fear and guilt--a "sickness unto death."

"I think of what's going to happen to me--I think of what I'm going to be. I know there's no hope left to be anything.... I'm sick, man...sick. I never felt like this before. Sometimes I feel like laying down in the street and never getting up... Dogs are my friends. They know. They live at people's feet..."

During this period, the boy felt that "three days now are worse than six months in prison." He grew careless--smoked in bed, failed to eat, failed to finish routine tasks. Later, his questions about himself became sincere, and his search for answers honest.

The experimenter began to talk about his own beliefs, values, and doubts, but was careful to point out that he cold not solve the boy's problems for him. The terms "you should" or "you should not" were never used. The boy had to answer his own questions, provide his own direction. Sometimes, the suffering led to discovery.

* INSIGHT: The insight may not be intellectually profound; its power is is strong relevance to the boys' emotional experiences.

"Well, about 7:30 last night I went in, went in the house, laid down and took off my clothes...and tried to go to sleep. And all of a sudden I woke up and my heart, and body, it was, it was just beating; and I felt real good all over... And then I got sudden fear--that feeling, you know, and more excitement. And then I thought of what I'd say as I was talking into this tape recorder... And then you said 'For the good talk, here's an extra dollar.' And I said 'money, money--the hell with money.'

"What will I do? Will I go back to the streets, the corners, drinking and stealing?... I look back through the years... Somewhere, somehow, I lost a part of me. I think, oh how I think, of the life I have lived. The life of the devil....

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