Plotting Your Horoscope

Hanging over one of the higher window panes in Frank Fisher's office in the back of 54 Dunster Street is a small lead frame with the stained glass image of a carrot and stick superimposed upon a square Crimson H. The office itself is a brown study of spartan furnshings and dusky bookishness. The start Harvard armchairs, the large and brooding rug, the huge oak-slab desk spattered with papers, the shelves of volumes bound in lusterless red--all bear the bloodless mark of a collection that has had to depend for its light on a tiny ration of western sun that filters past the Institute of Politics and through the great window. Finally, there is the long and severe form of Mr. Fisher himself, the broker of futures, who is much more the stick than the carrot. For the ambitious student who happens to wander this way, the whole scene suggests, with a Protestant New England reserve, that, No, there is no earthly reward, or at least, To get a good job, you must work hard while you are here.

Actually, Fisher's back room is far off the main stream of grade-grubbing and competition, and Fisher himself does not thrash any students on to professional reward back here. Amid what David Riesman '31, Ford Professor of Social Science, calls the disturbing consequences the preprofessional scramble is having on Harvard College, back here in the very boiler room of student aspiration--the office of career services--Fisher excuses himself from the turnmoil. He has not witnessed "avarice," he says, and the term "preprofessional scramble" is just too imprecise. Even the carrot and the stick, he says, are a gift of a friend to commemorate an article--on public policy. Fisher's is the attitude that has prompted one House tutor to comment of the office of career service, "What used to be a ruthless preprofessional machine is now the last haven of middle-aged hippiedom."

If Frank Fisher's head is in the clouds, it is because he seems much less interested in the preprofessional student and his parcel of concerns than in the angst of the student who doesn't know what he is going to do. The psychology of the mixed-up student's dilemma fascinates Fisher, who himself has flitted from one high-ranking administrative job to another in the white-collar constellation. On the eve of limited adulthood, Fisher says, these perturbed children suffer because they must narrow down their fantasies about future occupation to concrete possibility.

And when Fisher talks of the health of the College, his concern is not how effectively the school is getting students into professional schools. He deals in much more lofty terms--how much conformity the place inflicts. While others may be sweating or swearing about how Harvard is now a trade school, Fisher seems pleased about how the College has changed in the 30 years since he went here.

Now, says Fisher, there is a wider divergence of backgrounds, hometowns, and parental incomes and as one consequence, there is a greater "tolerance of differences," which is what seems to matter the most. It is in such an atmosphere, Fisher says, that a student can build up the "guts" to do something independent or risky.


I found someone with guts--I'll call him George McAlister '70--in an apartment house in Boston that looks like the flatiron building. He did not want to talk over the telephone, and he did not want me to copy down his real name or the subject of the novel he is writing. He is on unemployment, but admits that he is "bourgeois" or at least "materialistic": the stereo was playing a Brandenburg concerto when I walked in, there was at least one plant hanging off the ceiling, and he began to talk--in the middle of a spotless and sunlit kitchen--after he had begun to drink the first of two glasses of hot cider.

"I could have been a very unhappy lawyer," he says. As it is, he left college to work for a year behind a postage meter in the bottom of an office building, then for another year at a professional service aimed to help the underprivileged in Boston. One of the reasons he enjoyed the first job so much is because it posed no threat to his future; it was only when he began the later, administrative employment, that it became "a fair contest between that and my writing."

He started writing last May. Once before, he began a book, a children's book, but it went nowhere ("Why didn't I finish it? I know why--I'll give you a good Harvard Philosophy Department phenomenological answer--because I stopped writing."), and now, a person who at Harvard always wanted "something to care about," he finds himself "less desperate than I have been in a long time, finally able to do something I haven't been able to sit down and do before."

He agrees with Fisher that it is easier to be different now. There is a "whole expectation" that some will want to be artists, so it is "easier now to decide to write." He adds, "I would have stood out more 40 years ago." But the glib way Fisher describes the senior's dilemma hardly approaches the nightmarish depth of the experience for George McAlister.

"Harvard prepared me for the outside in my case by not shielding me from the terror that I would feel. But Harvard itself didn't prepare me," he says. "If Harvard did anything for me it was to provide an atmosphere that was so uncomfortable that I had to face myself right at the beginning rather than postpone it."

"I know I'm still a Harvard man," he reassured me. "I always will be--it's stamped me." And before he let me leave, he wanted to hear about me and my Harvard experience.

Richard B. Freeman, professor of Economics, found five minutes and a seat for me in between phone calls in a large closet of an office cluttered with computer print-outs and color travel posters. Freeman is much less orthodox-looking than either Fisher or George McAlister, in leather jacket, boots and jeans. But hetalks much faster than either of them, does not look at you or pause to reflect, and does not shed any tears over the angst of senior year at Harvard College. His pessimism is much more detached. Americans are overeducated, he says, and although Harvard students always have been and will always be above the mean, they are not immune to the gnashings of a choked market.

Freeman's economic analysis is more sophisticated than that of Fisher, who has great faith that students can read the market. Freeman says the point law school became popular was a day in the late 60's when a top Wall Street firm raised its salaries $5000 across the board. What is next in sudden popularity? Here, he answers, grabbing across his desk at the loose 300 pages of manuscript of his book on the overeducated, look at this beautiful graph. The graph shows two roughly bell-shaped curves going up and down in parallel paths. This, Freeman explains, is the employment prediction he made for the engineering field a few years ago, matched neatly by the actual trend in hiring. He is proud of the correlation. Business school is becoming the newest popular field, he says, with especially women viewing their prospects as favorable in what will, inevitably, provide yet another glut in this scarcity-ridden model.

The bottom of the heap is the Howard Johnson floor. Over and over in the harshly meritocratic scheme of David Riesman '31, the student who does not deserve to make it ends up on what Riesman figuratively labels "the Howard Johnson floor."

The students who might end up there are the 20 per cent of the Harvard class Riesman lumps together when he breaks the class down into three broad parts. In group number three are the utterly mixed-up graduates, "the people who fall into the abyss when they graduate." Some of them, in grasping at straws, opt for the "post-baccalaureate baccalaureate," a law degree, while others heedlessly try to make it in the demanding fields of scholarship or the creative arts. "This group does take off," he says, "and often they have insufficient skills to stay off the Howard Johnson floor. They're the ones who are driving cabs or working at check-out counters."

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