Wesleyan University Commencement

Middletown, CT | June 7, 1964

What is education for, if not to make better more learned people to make a better world? There is ultimately, a great mystery as to how and when great social changes throughout the world occur, but it is clear that they cannot come about without the dedicated efforts of intelligent, concerned men.

Most graduates of American colleges and universities today have been involved in an educational marathon. Think about it a moment! For 16 continuous years or more you graduates of '64 have been in a lockstep of doing lessons, studying, cramming, writing term papers. Now over 80 percent of you are marching on to graduate school for more of the same.

But if you'll look you'll notice a number of your classmates who are missing. They're the 35 percent who dropped out of this class! They're the ones who decided it just wasn't worth the effort, or they weren't getting out of it what they had hoped to get, or they weren't putting into it what they should—or perhaps they had still other reasons.

So they became drop-outs — college drop-outs — and that is a national problem that hasn't gotten the attention it urgently needs. Much is written and studied and discussed, about high school dropouts, but the college drop-out represents an even more serious loss of potential brain-power.

Less than 60 percent of the students who enroll in United States colleges ever graduate, in other words more than 40 percent of all students drop out of college and.50 percent of these quit by the end of two years.

Recently the Office of Education reported that male students drop-out mainly because of "lack of interest in studies." Sad to say, the desire to prepare for a better paying job was the main reason for entering college in the first place, so it is not surprising many of them left.

But it's too easy — especially in an assembly of graduates —to feel superior and forget the ones who didn't "make it", who quit on education in midstream...the records show that these drop-outs were not all weak students. 32 percent of them were in the top fifth of their high school graduating class!

Well, what was the problem? One of the problems, perhaps, was that the decision to go to college, the choice of a major field of study, and the decision to see it through to the end, are made, usually, by young people who haven't had much contact with the "real" world. College is academic to them. For them, college is a staging area, not a battlefield, a war game, not a war. But most of all, it's a guessing game! Most students entering college have never had to make a major decision, — except perhaps whether to take Sally or Sue to the high school prom. It's a little more difficult, they find, to decide whether to spend the rest of your life being a lawyer, or an engineer, or a social scientist, or a history teacher, or a lepidopterist. And once you've made a choice, nothing can discourage interest in a subject faster than having to study and master it. Many college students feel they're learning in a vacuum. The cloistered halls of ivy are too cloistered for them.

Suppose there were a moratorium at some point — a moratorium on education. As far back as 1950, Dr. Eric Erickson, the noted psychoanalyst, suggested the idea of such a moratorium in a White House Conference on Youth. He saw it as a period away from the classroom in which a youth could "find himself," find out what he really wanted.

This week Paul Goodman, the distinguished novelist and social critic, picked up the theme again in an article in "The Commonweal."

"Suppose," Goodman says, "that half a dozen of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges — say Amerst, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Carleton, etc. — would announce that, beginning in 1966, they required for admission a two-year period, after high school, spent in some maturing activity, —- for example, working for a living, community service such as the Northern Student Movement, or the "Peace Corps", work camp, Army, a satisfactory course of travel..." and so forth.

The purpose of this, Goodman writes, would be "to get students with enough life-experience to be educable on the college level." Goodman sees "a desperate need" for such "breaks and return points." Otherwise, he says, "the schooling inevitably becomes spirit-breaking regimentation...often, this balking in doing school work, especially among bright young people, means that the work does not suit them, not that subject, or at that time, or in the school setting altogether. They might not be bookish, or might be school-tired; perhaps their development ought now to take another direction."

The people who conduct the training programs in the Peace Corps know that Goodman is right.

We noticed one thing almost immediately in our training programs: There was an overwhelming eagerness by the trainees to get out and "do" rather than to sit and listen. Many of them were suffering from what might be called "campus fatigue."

Probably, that's not an unfamiliar phrase in this gathering. Many college students by the end of their sophomore year are mentally "burned out. Often they've been pushed, from infancy onward, to get high grades, to get into the "good" prep schools, to get into the "good colleges." By the second year of college they’re high on brainwork, but rather low on human experience. Their closest contact with "real life," has often been, teaching tennis in the summer at the club or a Christmas-time job at the post-office.

The young men and women we get in the Peace Corps — 90 percent college graduates — are still in search of "real life"—in search of reality. In a sense they are fugitives from the groves of academe. They have four years of college behind them, and now they want some graduate "experience in the world." Another thing about these Volunteers: — When they enter the Peace Corps many of them are uncertain about their major fields of academic study. Then they go Overseas for two years, get more experience, more responsibility, more personal stress, than they have ever known before. And when they come home, many of them suddenly have switched their majors. Engineers turn into psychologists, agriculturalists to anthropologists, business majors to history teachers, psychology majors to students of international affairs.

These are not people returning from a vacation abroad, or from mere study abroad. These are veterans of two full years of trying situations and strenuous circumstances. These are people who now knew the interiors, the folkways, and some of the languages of the world's civilizations. People whose sense of purpose, whose aims, whose articles of faith 'have been tempered under fire, who had encountered reality on its own terms, who have finally discovered the world they'd heard so many rumors about—the world beyond college now.

And what happened as a result of this journey into reality?  Did our Peace Corps Volunteers not only change their interest but revolt against education itself? No…they did not. When the first 545 Volunteers returned to the United States, nearly half of them resumed their academic education, most of them at the graduate level. 99 of them won assistantships, fellowships, or scholarships. The reality they encountered in the field had not been left behind.  The Volunteers brought it to the classroom with them.

Gray Cowan, Director of Columbia University's African Studies Program, was one of the people who noticed this. "We now have a number of former volunteers who served in Africa and have come back to study here,' He said. "They are head and shoulders above the rest of the students in the program. Their 'higher degree of motivation and. greater insight result in a superior academic performance. The more of these returning volunteers we can get, the better."

The Peace Corps, of course, didn't invent reality. Nor was it the first to reveal what the experience of reality can bring to the classroom. College teachers who taught the 2 million World War II GI veterans say these men were their best students... They were men with serious questions, men who were not merely interested in exams and marks, but concerned about the relationship between their studies and the problems of their own lives, and the great problems of the world. They had returned from the crucible of war, as lamps to be lit, not pitchers to be filled. The pace and sophistication of their school work was edifying and exhilarating to their teachers...deeply rewarding to the students themselves.

This seems to be quality also of our Peace Corps Volunteers who are returning to school. Many are holders of bachelor's degrees who decided to take two years of service as an interval between college and graduate school. Many are undergraduate students on a two-year leave of absence. As a matter of fact, one out of every seven men and women serving in the Peace Corps is— in one sense — a college drop-out. Yet all of them - including the "drop-outs" — are doing a terrific job. There are 7,412 Peace Corps Volunteers and trainees today. 1,217 of them attended college, but had not graduated when they joined the Peace Corps. Almost all of these "drop outs" plan to return to college when they complete their Peace Corps service. It's safe to say that, having stretched out their education for at least two years, they'll stretch it out for the rest of their lives. They are the students who will become those permanently, self-educating citizens colleges hope to produce.

Take Mike Glatte, a volunteer in Ethiopia. He was a drop-out from the University of California, maybe even a flunk-out. He didn't get beyond the second year of college. Yet Mike did so well in Peace Corps training that the Ethiopian government asked that he be sent, even though he didn't meet their requirement of a college degree. In Ethiopia, Mike was sent to a rundown slum school, for all-Muslim children in Asmara, a school which had never had a foreign teacher. Mike turned out to be an excellent and dedicated teacher. He learned the language. He organized a school library, and various clubs. He raised money in the local community, and from the United States, to build new classrooms. He proved to be a leader. The Ethiopian government wanted him to stay on after his two years. He had done so well the Peace Corps offered him a job at $7500 per annum. But he turned down all offers in order to go back and finish college.

Take Peter Dybwad, who graduated from Wesleyan in 1961. He was certainly no college drop-out.. But he turned down both Harvard and Yale Law Schools to join the Peace Corps in Ghana. He was in our first group to go overseas. He taught history in the Akim-Oda High School. When his principal was away, he was elected acting principal of the school by the other teachers — all but one were Ghanians. Now Peter is home and back in school — Yale Law School. This is what he says about his experience in the Peace Corps:  

"I would rather have a penniless and wretched old age after a full and varied life, than a 'secure' old age paid for by a careful and safe career."

Like the returning GIs, these volunteers are now not merely interested, but concerned. They are not merely curious, they care. They care about education of the poor in Nyasaland, prevention Of disease in Malaysia, agricultural advancement for Pakistan, community action for rural villages in Peru.

And they care about the same problems among the 30 million rural and urban poor in this country. 82 percent of the Peace Corps Volunteers have already declared a strong interest in working in President Johnson's War on Poverty, in training the unskilled, teaching the, illiterate, helping the mentally retarded, and the aged, supervising recreation for fatherless children, and many other jobs that need doing among the poor.

Their dedication, their zeal, their sense of commitment is the sort of influence, the sort of climate, we need to create on our cloistered campuses in America — a climate of concern. Yet today six out of ten college students enroll in college with their eye on the main chance — on the degree that awaits them at the end — and the job, financial success, and social position that the degree promises to bring. Occupational motivations rank higher than any other motivations for going to college.

Does your degree mean no more than this to you? Is it a degree of self-advancement? Is it a letter of reference for a high paying job?

What is education for, if not to make better more learned people to make a better world? There is ultimately, a great mystery as to how and when great social changes throughout the world occur, but it is clear that they cannot come about without the dedicated efforts of intelligent, concerned men.

What has all this to do with college drop-outs? Just this:

The college drop-out problem doesn't have to be a problem at all. It can be a plus instead of a problem, a plus for the student who drops out, a plus for America, a plus for the world.

In other words, if the college sophomore wants to drop out — let him!

Let the bored, or confused, or "burned out" undergraduate have a short, meaningful interlude...A sojourn in reality...for a year, or even two years, so that he may come back revitalized, committed, concerned enough to finish both college and graduate school. And let these interludes be periods of service, whether in the Peace Corps, the poverty program, the American Friends, the Papal Volunteers, or any other service involving the reality of human needs.

These short period of service could provide their own reward. More important, they could inspire young men and women toward whole lives of service — and nothing short of whole lives of service will be required of Americans in the coming decades.

This proposal is neither anti-education nor anti-professional. It is pro-better education. It is pro-service. It is pro-the best kind of preparation for the best kind of life.

The idea of these "drop-out" periods is already taking hold, gaining support—even, in academic circles. Our Peace Corps Director in Nigeria, William Saltonstall, used to be Headmaster of Exeter. He urged President Pusey of Harvard not to accept any graduate of Exeter who had not spent a year away from school. He insisted that high school graduates need to learn about other realities in the world besides exams and grades, other people in the world besides their schoolmates and families.

President Harrington of the University of Wisconsin, has urged two-year leaves for undergraduates, beginning in either their sophomore or junior years.... For two years' service in some work-study capacity — whether it's community development abroad or work right here with younger Americans on slum projects — he proposes that students receive one-year's undergraduate credit.

Here at Wesleyan, many of you have done very well as undergraduates in part-time projects in Middletown. When Dean Barlow assessed student involvement at the end of the first semester, he found 88 undergraduates involved in the companion program for mental patients at the Connecticut Valley Hospital; 60 who had taught in the Negro Tutoring Program; 16 working with church youth groups; 19 with the Boy Scouts; 27 with the YMCA; and 13 actively participating in the local NAACP.

All of this is commendable, but does it mean you've disposed of your obligation to do service work? If that is so, then ail it does is to confirm the traditional notion of service which must now be abandoned — the old idea that service is a spare time activity, basically unrelated to what one really does in life. Service is pot a short-term debt. It's a life-time investment, in a better future for all of us.

Twelve members of this WESLEYAN CLASS OF 1964 have applied to the Peace Corps. They, I predict, will maintain their interest in service to their fellow men for the rest of their lives. But the majority of you have made another kind of commitment. Most of your are going on to graduate school, professional school or both. But are you committed for life? Are you going on to graduate school to prepare for involvement in the issues of our time? Are you preparing to be a professional, in the highest sense of the word? Or are you going simply to avoid involvement, to avoid the draft, or worse still, because you have nothing better to do?

I certainly hope none of these motives influence you. Because we want to involve you. We need your involvement. We have work for you, even when you finish graduate school. Twelve and a half per cent of our Peace Corps Volunteers have masters degrees or higher. Many of them, in fact, teach at the university level overseas. Most Americans don't realize it, but 300 Peace Corps Volunteers are teaching at universities in Asia, in Africa, and Latin America. That is why I am wearing this unusual academic gown today. This gown was presented to me at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand last January — not because of any research I did — but because of the job 30 Peace Corps teachers are doing at that University, the oldest and largest in southeast Asia. In recognition of the Volunteers' work, Chulalongkorn University presented me with the honorary degree of Doctor of Political Science. All of us should work toward the degree of Doctors of Humanity.

Fifteen centuries ago, St Augustine wrote: "Those that sit at rest while others take pains are tender turtles, and buy their quiet with disgrace." –

There is no room in the 20th Century Ark for tender turtles: Make your decision in favor of taking pains, in favor of involvement, in favor of commitment — create a climate of concern in America.

Drop out of college, if necessary, for a term of service. Drop in on the real world of the poor, disenfranchised. You'll find it a challenging place to visit — and some of you might even want to live there. You are certainly needed there.

At the end of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," the youthful hero, Stephen Daedalus, turns away from the narrow provincialism of his native Dublin, and delivers this valedictory:

"I go forth, for the millionth time to encounter the reality of experience...to forge in the smithy of my soul the untreated conscience of my race."

It can be said that the American conscience was created by the founders of this country. But America still needs blacksmiths. It needs men — and women — who in the smithy of their souls can forge a link to that conscience. It needs men — and women — who are ready to encounter reality, and make it a happier reality for men and women everywhere.