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BEFORE DECEMBER 1, those of us who talked about dropping out didn't dare do it. We spoke of it as some speak of revolution, but in a personal context: calm, carnest explanations of our own mixtures of problems: assertive predictions about the curative effects of dropping out: and finally, in dull tones, with a shrug, the admission that it couldn't really happen.
Now it not only can happen, but is happening. A high lottery number in favorable circumstances may be an ill-gotten passport, but it is a passport nonetheless. Perhaps a fourth of the students at Harvard can safely drop out; some already have. All of a sudden dropping out involves not wishing bat acting. And now, because its vocabulary has abruptly assumed the present tense, it is worth more discussion.
First, the term itself. When we mention dropping out, we mean of course. dropping out of school. That's an important clarification: the term has had other uses. It once meant dropping out of society. For some people, maybe without any conscious use of the words, it has meant dropping out of life. This may seem to stretch the words a bit-but the words don't matter.
For there is an ethos about dropping out that lendsaura to the words, a spirit whose influence is as strong and accessible to us all as the spirit of social activism. Depending on his sentiments and nature, an individual may allow either spirit to affect him, parts of both, or neither at all. But it a person does nothing, his bonds with either spirit can never be more intellectual: the important ingredient is action. The ?hos of dropping out informs and guides us only as we act. It is certainly guiding us now as we drop out of school, and it is informing our expectations of what we will accomplish by doing it.
This ethos stretches far back into American history: it is pointless and impossible to review its entire evolution. Suffice it to say that people have been dropping out of society, school, life, or whatever for a long time.
Dropping out of American Society has required tremendous efforts from those who attempt it. They have had to move great physical distances in order to purge themselves of all they felt was wrong or repulsive about American life. Some did manage to find a better way to live; others didn't.
And others have concluded that dropping out of society-that is, rejecting the society and its culture completely-is impossible. This is the sort of realization that has led people, all along, to commit suicide (drop out of life). Not just the disaffected, but respectable, conventionally successful people as well. They come to the realization that there is no escape, that too much of what they loathe is built into them, inextricably. For them the last resort, quitting life, is often a welcome one.
But for others, not quite so bound up or unable to contemplate suicide, the only thing left is to cope with a life they don't want. They glory in what pleasures they have, mildly protest all men's pains, and accept whatever halms are available.
MANY OF US who are here never have liked Harvard-it has nearly broken us-and now that we have the chance, we want to leave it. Some of us would like to come back someday or feel we can't afford not to: we hope a little time off will strengthen us for later trials for academia. Others will refuse to have any more of it and will withdraw for good to try some other manner of living. The only hope is for something a little bit better. To go somewhere else, do something else, see how it goes. We often talk big, but none of us really has consuming aspirations, grand hopes, or ultimatums for himself. Not these days.
Why do we talk big? One explanation is that the spirit of the act conflicts with our self-conceptions. The act seems larger because we cannot conceive ourselves doing it. We have been groomed all our lives as the best of young American achievers: dropping out is the ultimate violation of work ethic.
There is another reason for the seeming magnitude of dropping out. This is the first time that many of us are taking an opportunity to choose a different direction (not necessarily a different quality) for our lives. Expediency has governed us all, and for many years it has allowed no choices. We have staved in school and in college not only to avoid the draft, but also to guarantee the security of our own futures. Maybe we have wanted to acquire certain skills in schooling which would help us help others, but we have kept our best interests in mind, too. In this sense, we have guilty admiration for true revolutionaries, whatever their stripe-they have found the courage to sacrifice personal expediency for social necessity.
Everyone (not just the dropouts) does, at least, try to theorize about what will make a real difference. But what does it come to? A friend of mine recently decided that the only meaningful revolution will come when people refuse to submit to the Rules. (Dropping out of the Rules to transform, the Society that made Them.) Greater theorists have reached similar conclusions: Marcuse, now Roszak. A significant refusal requires revolutionary courage and action by many people. But there are few revolutionaries.
PERHAPS WE ARE effete. What have we, any of us, to show for all our frenzy? Only half-learned lessons in the futility of polities and the inadequacy of moral and logical argument, of reason, of language itself. No tangible results. And there seem to be no more workable alternatives-if there are, we haven't found them. In the long run, dropping out might fail to do much good. The same goes for staying in. All that is left is to huddle close with our friends, hang on to a sense of the absurd and wait.
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