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IN THE old days its was arty to say that you went to school not only to learn things but also to find out who you are. People talk about such things at commencement time. By now, the Class of 1969 has heard quite a few times who it is (as if a whole class could be a "who"). We are probably the most written about class in history. The media and our parents and various other old people have been telling us who are for a long time--or they ask us, "Who are you anyway?" "Why are you kinds doing what you are doing?" The question is a horror. It is a question that no one should ever answer in his entire life, but it is one that we have all been forced to answer, and that is our problem. To say who you are and why you do things is to imply that a person is something that can be stopped in midflight, scooped down and examined, calculated about. The person is then a human being who is not being and not becoming, but a person who rather is and was--static, holding still and saying, "I am this," "I took over that building because..."
The Class of 1969 is a famous class because it feels passionately about things, wants to rid the world of evil, etc. We hate the famous War in Vietnam, and we take various kinds of dope, and most of all we are full of energy and idealism. Yes. Of course, at times our zeal is misdirected (as, alas was Hitler's). At times, we want things too fast, too much (this being a product of our childhood, of course, since our parents grew up in the depression, then made it, then wanted to give us all the advantages, etc.) But alas again, we must realize that the world out there is imperfect (past progressive), and we should not ask for so much so fast. And then (this is our dark side), we are enamored of violence. It has been said that during the occupation of University Hall, several students, seething with violence, violently escorted (manhandled, etc.) several deans out of their offices. (The students were duly dismissed from Harvard, which is a university known far and wide for its abhorrence of violence). I could go on. During the campaign for president of the U.S. last summer, many students heckled candidates, including Hubert Humphrey (who eventually finished second) and George Wallace (who finished third).
HISTORY. I came to Harvard in the fall of 1965. It was a crisp fall and quite russet, if I remember correctly. Two falls before, John Kennedy was shot dead in the middle of a Biology test. A girl came running into class hysterical to tell us. A few of us stayed to finish up our mollusca; then they let us out early. The summer before, I was a civil rights worker in Alabama. In those days, we believed that the government could solve all of our problems, and that we were the good guys and the government was on our side fighting the forces of evil.
The next summer I went to Russia with Dough and some other fellows who eventually came to Harvard. We were calm and detached and liberal. We thought that the Russians had a very low standard of living, but, alas, they did not realize it. They had made great strides in half a century, yes. But at what cost? That is the way we talked then. Dough and I wanted to be foreign service officers. Harvard would be good for that, we thought.
At Harvard on Registration Day for Freshmen, we began queueing up very early in front of Memorial Hall. I was about a third of the way down the line. In the front was a Negro fellow with wonderful yellow sunglasses, except that I did not think they were wonderful then, they begin uptight (a word I learned later) and trying very hard to be a Harvard freshman. First it was sideburns--Marty claims he was the first one in the freshman class with sideburns, but Marty, who is married now, always claimed such things. Then, it was wire-rimmed glasses. On our floor of the entry, we were totally against them, especially after Richard got a pair.
We were all for the war then, except Bruce, who was on the executive committee of SDS, then quit at the end of the year with no explanation (this was to be the first of many events with no explanation, a situation I managed to adjust to). Bruce argued against the war with many people. By the next year we were all against the war, and I suppose that now, three years later, we are still against the war.
Last year, we felt powerful, that we could do anything. We marched on the Pentagon in October, and I remember the sky sulphurous with the smell of teargas and smoke in the air. In March the President was deposed and the war was over (something about no bombing in North Vietnam). People worked for McCarthy, who lost by only a little in New Hampshire but by a lot in the Democratic convention. Still, it was wonderful to feel that you could get things done. And in May there was Columbia. Earlier, we sat in against a Dow Chemical Company recruiter, because Dow made napalm, which was a horrible weapon for any self-respecting and polite country to be using in the particular wars it was fighting.
Of course, we were playing with symbols of revolution, and of course this was not the real thing. But what do you expect from upper-middle-class-socio-economic kids. Still, Henry Kissinger said that revolutions succeed when the people who are being revolted against do not take the revolutionaries seriously. So they took us seriously when we were only dealing with symbols. They sent Dartmouth students to jail for 30 days, and they fired on young people in Berkeley with shotguns filled with buckshot and birdshot and rock salt, and they killed one man--a white man. Black men died in colleges before, at Orangeburg last year and before and since. But then they killed a white man, which was turning against their own. The game is over now. While it lasted, it was our own, what we did, our education, our exhilaration. They said we were zealous and concerned; that satisfied their need for explanations. But now the game is over. It is different when they are ready to shoot you. We are still afraid to die, and most of us realize the absurdity of dying for something--it is useless if your are dead. To be a rebel, to be ready to die, writes Camus, is to realize that rebellion is its own reason for existing. It is not rebellion for something, but simply rebellion for its own sake, rebellion because man cannot be man without rebelling. Few of us are there, and few of us are even getting there. Harvard taught us to be afraid to die anyway.
The things we grew to hate in four years are things we became very attached to. We would love to listen to the news on the radio just to grumble at the news of the war, just to make cynical remarks at David Brinkley. But still we listened. The war became our reality, and so did racism and oppression. There was never a chance of our building something new, of making our own radical society, or even of building a conclave, making a sanctuary in this one. We were too attached to what we hated. And then, the horror of the question. "Who are you?" That came this year to our class harder than to any other class. And few of us believe in ourselves enough any more to refuse to answer it. If anything made us different these four years it was out lack of a past--not a generation without a future, as George Wald said, but a generation without a past. We should not be told that all this had happened before, that we should learn from history. Even if these things had happened to us before, they had never happened to us before. All of the basic things, loving and hating, we learned for ourselves. That was before they knew us, of course, before being required acting, and then they noticed, and they demanded explanations, and, being well-educated, we realized there must be explanations for what we were doing, and we gave them, and we lost ourselves in it.
We hated them so much; we were so eager to answer their questions. And soon, our world was gone. Some of us became Marxists, and some of us became capitalists; we talked about our past, as I am talking now, as though it were the present. We gave ourselves up, and we are left with a feeling of being lost. Perhaps every class feels that way, perhaps every person feels that way when he is 22. That does not make it any less important to us; it is the first time we have felt that way, and it is impossible for us to experience the way all those other people have felt.
We feel like we are losing something that it was absurd to want in the first place. When your are in the Class of 1969, and you have told everyone who you are and why you do things, then you feel disillusioned with the world that you are facing. You feel disillusioned because someone has taken your illusions away. But there are others.
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