Myth of the Dropout: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” Never Really Described Berkeley Ethos

By Pat Joseph

Timothy Leary’s dead, but his legend lives on—albeit on life support.

The acid guru died at his home in Beverly Hills in 1996 at age 75. By then he was no longer the Pied Piper he’d once been, the public figure whose most popular slogan, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” made him the bogeyman of the establishment—a figure Richard Nixon once called “the most dangerous man in America.”

In essays and interviews Leary would later insist that the last part of his famous catchphrase was metaphorical. “‘Drop out’ means drop out of conformity,” he explained. “‘Drop out’ means change.”

Certainly, drop out can mean both those things, but in Leary’s first public utterance of the phrase at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in 1967, drop out meant, well, drop out: “Turn on, tune in, drop out. I mean drop out of high school, drop out of college, drop out of graduate school.”

Which was easy for him to say. He had a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and had been a lecturer at Harvard. Minus those credentials, who was he but another weird old dude with a flower in his hair?

Dropouts are the theme of this issue. Dropouts and Drop-ins. It’s meant to be a “big tent” version of Berkeley, encompassing both town and gown, welcoming those who left the University without a degree as well as those who never attended but were drawn here by the presence of the institution and the intellectual community—the scene—that has grown up around it.

Many of the drop-ins we highlight were changed by their time in Berkeley. Exhibit A is the case of comedian Richard Pryor, who reinvented himself here during a seven-month residence in 1971. Others simply passed through—the way you might, if you’re lucky, spend time in Paris or London or Marrakech—perhaps in a “gap year” spent working and traveling the world. Still others stuck around, came to call the place home. Maybe they stayed for the climate or the bay views. Maybe it was just proximity to the Bancroft Library. In any case, what’s not to like?

These days, folks increasingly drop in virtually, via MOOCs, massive open online courses, which allow anyone with an Internet connection to take select University courses, free of charge.

As for dropouts (many of whom also stuck around), well, the word is a loaded one. On the one hand, there’s obviously a stigma attached to it. It connotes failure, after all: the dropout as quitter. On the other hand, there is the dropout as folk hero—the figure who, like Huck Finn, lights out for the territory, a step ahead of Aunt Sally and her “sivilizing influence.” Americans love this story. More than any other society, we cling to the myth of the self-made man, the self-taught inventor, the unschooled iconoclast who blazes his or her (though the heroic narrative is still cast mostly in masculine terms) own path through the wilderness.

Berke­ley has nev­er really fostered a dro­pout cul­ture—not even in the looser, more meta­phor­ic­al senses that Leary liked to traffic in. In the rear­view mir­ror, the ’60s coun­ter­cul­ture may ap­pear as one big Sum­mer of Love. It wasn’t.

The myth has gained new currency with the emergence of the dropout as high-powered CEO. For examples, look no further than the tech triumvirate of Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg—dropouts all. And of course, our Alumnus of the Year, Steve Wozniak, could be added to that list—the difference being that the Woz came back to Berkeley and finished his degree after his success as cofounder of Apple. Woz is both dropout and drop-in.

Before going on, it should be noted that Berkeley does a very good job of graduating its students overall. More than 90 percent of Cal undergrads finish their degrees in six years or less, far above the national average and comparable to other elite universities. Even those facing unique challenges—such as first-generation college students—do quite well at Berkeley thanks in part to programs designed to support students’ progress.

There are exceptions. Notably, many of Cal’s student-athletes have struggled to balance the demands of Division I athletics with the academic rigors of the top public university in the world. While the poor graduation rates among some Cal teams have been scrutinized in the media (including this magazine), less well known are efforts to invite former Cal athletes to drop back in after their playing days are over to complete their degrees.

It should be noted, too, that Berkeley has never really fostered a dropout culture—not even in the looser, more metaphorical senses that Leary liked to traffic in. In the rearview mirror, the ’60s counterculture may appear as one big Summer of Love. It wasn’t. That first Human Be-In was also called a Gathering of the Tribes, and it was meant to smooth over some of the emerging fault lines—primarily, the schism between the hippies in the Haight and the radicals from Berkeley. The real dropouts were the Leary-style flower children, not to mention Ken Kesey and his merry band of bohos. The Berkeley folks—people like Jerry Rubin and Berkeley Barb publisher Max Scherr—tended to see the Be-In as a lost opportunity for organized protest against the war in Vietnam.

Dropping out may not be part of the Berkeley tradition, but political activism most certainly is. A 1966 report entitled Education at Berkeley found that “The uncommitted student who has no meaningful goal for his life and who leaves college to find himself, has been less conspicuous than the student who finds meaning in championing the downtrodden.” Even before the Free Speech Movement, students at Berkeley rallied behind civil rights and in support of faculty resistance to the Loyalty Oath. As evidenced by numerous campus demonstrations in recent years, including the Occupy Cal protests of 2011 and the post-Ferguson marches last winter, the tradition continues.

At Berkeley, politics still matter. Timothy Leary not so much. 


Pat Joseph is Editor of California.

From the Spring 2015 Dropouts and Drop-ins issue of California.
Filed under: Cal Culture
Image source: AP Photo/Bob Klein
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This is absolutely ridiculous! Have you ever even read his book? How could somebody sit down and right with without having alternate motives? Timothy talks about all of the things brought up in this article. Of course he was considered the most dangerous man in the world, he showed people the key to unlocking the higher consciousness. He directed the attention to the self and to what is truly important. He even supports people going to universities for legitimate reasons. I recommend everyone read this book before even thinking about taking this article seriously.
We baby boomers let our children down. We allowed ourselves to be completely brainwashed by the ruling elite’s media and CIA puppets like Timothy. We were lured in by the drugs ‘n’sex ‘n’ rock’n’roll honey pots. The CIA - dirty tricks wing of the ruling elites - had swamped the scene with heroin, cocaine and LSD to replace our quest for peace and love with violence and crime, hatred and division, their divide ‘n’ rule agenda. They bought up all the independent newspapers and media, so they could hide the truth from us. We got Regan and Thatcher. Their revenge on the sixties revolution, getting worse. We baby boomers lost the plot. But the dire consequences of that remarkably creative era for music, arts, etc., were the direct result of the ruling elite’s determination never to allow their rule to ever be threatened again. As the old adage says “the wealthy will never allow their wealth to be voted away”. It’s only thanks to social media that this generation has access to news and current events kept hidden by the vast majority of mainstream media i.e. the so-called ‘fake news’.
What is this article even about? Do you know anything about Leary? This is just a crappy propaganda piece that uses Leary as a selling/catching point. Why don’t you get your information right before you publish such freshman dribble for all the world to see.
What a bizarre article. What is the point? To change Leary’s image? To promote conformity? What?
This was written by a Berkeley alum? Your parents ought to ask for a refund on that tuition because it didn’t teach you jack diddly except self-aggrandizement, which I hazard a guess you were already proficient in when you matriculated. Way to miss the point of everything Leary espoused but still name-drop him for clicks on ya lame ass article.
Hey, Pat Joseph! You’re an idiot.
I’ve been called worse.
A vicious little article that makes no attempt to understand Leary or his famous phrase.
He made it pretty clear, didn’t he—at least the drop out part? “I mean drop out of high school, drop out of college, drop out of graduate school.” It’s on film. Yes, he later massaged that to mean various other things, but there was nothing vague about it at first. Sorry if I gored your sacred cow, but contrary to your assertion, I did the homework on that. And if I had really wanted to be vicious, I would have gone into his being an FBI informant or just quoted some of his more fatuous pronouncements, like this wonderfully comical exchange from the infamous Playboy interview: PLAYBOY: We’ve heard that some women who ordinarily have difficulty achieving orgasm find themselves capable of multi- ple orgasms under LSD. Is that true? LEARY: In a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms. PLAYBOY: Several hundred. LEARY: Yes. Several hundred.
Again, missing the point, Pat. What are we going to do with you?
Jesus! Your inability to understand the article ” she comes in colors” shows me that you have NEVER dropped acid. So shut the f..k up! I was a Boo Hoo in Art Klep’s Neo American Church and we all knew what Tim meant… we lived it every day.
I was rereading some of the older emails tonight (largely by mistake) and I happened to see Pat’s reference to: “she comes (cums?) in colors. Pat asks whether it is even possible for a woman to have several hundred consecutive orgasms. Pat, I can tell you quite honestly that while I obviously could not count the number of orgasms my girlfriend was having one day, it went on for several hours. They did not stop until I called 911 and she was hospitalized. While I would like to take credit for it (!) I actually had little to do with it. We did have sex and she climaxed… and then could not/would not stop. The medics in the ER treated her like she was the primary exhibit in a freakshow, until 1 doctor gave her a shot that stopped the contractions. I vaguely recall that it was a condition related to restless leg syndrome. Back to the LSD… yes I do know women who simply enjoyed the psychedelic activity and trusted their sexual partner. They often had multiple orgasms. I don’t think that they were ever hooked up to any monitor of any type, so how the hell could anyone know the quantity? Besides, with a sexual orgasm, wouldn’t a really good ONE be enough? Timothy Leary was the PT Barnum of the Psychedelic Era. It is silly to inspect his every word looking for scientific validation. Nonetheless, 50 years later I still have fond memories of both him and those times. Of course, I was young back then. I still believed in Magick.
When and why did we forget the Magic? The ‘Hippy’ generation was the nearest we have come to being human. Like Joni Mitchell wrote: “I’m going to try an’ get my soul free We are stardust We are golden And we’ve got to get ourselves Back to the garden Then can I walk beside you I have come here to lose the smog And I feel to be a cog in something turning Well maybe it is just the time of year Or maybe it’s the time of man I don’t know who l am But you know life is for learning We are stardust We are golden And we’ve got to get ourselves Back to the garden” John Watters UK
I don’t know. I’m just incorrigible I guess.
This article is terrible. It starts out by making vague criticisms about Leary, without any coherent larger argument. Then it pivots to a commentary about Berkeley traditions. Or something. At a guess, you are trying to say Leary was a hypocrite who didn’t follow the advice he preached. His ideas and writings were over-rated at the time, are irrelevant today, and have unfairly escaped mainstream critisicm or critique. But few understand this, because of the rose-tinted mythology that surrounds 1960’s counter-culture. Is that what you were trying to say? Probably some fair points buried within that argument. Are you disagreeing with the larger points he was trying to make about questioning the cultural narratives we are all programmed with? Or simply the methods he promoted to achieve this?
The comments have made this read-worthy. Thanks!
Famous Leary quote: “I declare that The Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” The man was an idiot.
Interesting tossing out of Timothy Leary in this article in order to wave the banner for Berkeley exceptionalism. Whilst growing up in the late punk rock era of the early 1980s, I watched a college debate between Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville. By then, Leary was an aging commercialised icon selling his counterculture image as a mainstream moneymaker. Even still, I appreciated his message that we should question authority no matter where we were in life, as PhD candidates, factory workers or woodland hippies. Leary, R.D. Laing and others were pioneers of the sort of experimentation that punkrockers carried forward to the hip hop, rap and grunge rock generations, past the Yippies, Yuppies, Gen X, Gen Y and on to the Millennials. Neither college nor drug experimentation is for everyone.
I’d like knowing the age of the article’s writer. I’m 66 yrs. For me, whether someone agrees or disagrees with the connect of the piece, it bears reflection & perhaps a bit of wisdom which steps beyond just research & examination on a topic of historical importance. In order, for a piece of writing to SHOW, rather than TELL, the reader the purpose of their work up-front. Such writing front-loading a piece of work lends purpose, clarity, voice & authenticity for its readers. Covering a ssubject reporting influential people & events embedded in the history during the 60’s & 70’s, carries with it a clear focus on correct research in order to substantiate writer’s purpose & knowledge of subject matter has authenticity, believe-ability & transparency. My sense of the writing offered by this author lacked some basic writing style & skill evidenced by the majority of comments given to the writer in the form of response
Graham states that she is not a “recovering quitter.” What does she mean?
Graham begins her essay with a reference to Timothy Leary's chant “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” What makes it easy for her to accept his advice? What is the purpose of beginning the essay this way?
pat I don’t know how you managed to get published on a berkeley alumni website, but congratulations. Your opinion piece has been on display for 5 years now. I couldn’t get past the first paragraph. After the FIFTH grammatical error I had to stop reading. Go back to class. And after that, turn on tune in and drop out. No need to reply. I promise I will never be back to see it
It almost seems quaint to look back and see someone blaming the drugs, particularly LSD, as a means of disrupting and destabilizing governments around the world. For my own part I have thought from the start that Covid-19 was a man made bioweapon that escaped the lab. I do wonder if all this talk about Bill Gates developing and deploying the virus has some truth to it. A billionaire like Gates, looking around and watching us destroy this planet, may have decided a form of triage was the best way to cure the disease (US!) For those who have never seen the movie - I urge you to watch SOYLENT GREEN……
An amazing interpretation of Leary’s work. I’m a fan of Leary’s and am a drop-out turned drop-in. The thing about “drop out” is that it means to drop out of unhappiness, drop out of the rat race, drop out of the perception of your life that isn’t shaped by you. When we do “drop out” we need to do so in order to know ourselves; once we know who we are and what we truly want, dropping back in is easy enough. Consider the student going to school for a finance degree when her true passion is poetry, or the student who is going to school for an art degree when he really wants to be an anthropologist. Neither will be happy with themselves later in life, neither will enjoy the work worlds they feel they must occupy, and they’ve been told that they need to do X and not Y because X makes money or because they have a talent for X when, in truth, they’d rather be doing Y. So reject X, find your Y, and come back to do Y. But in order to do Y, you must know yourself and the first step in self-knowledge is rejecting the perception of self imposed by others. Trun on, tune in, drop out. The find your Y and come back; your X won’t mind.
Where is Timothy when we need him/ NOW is the time to Turn on, Tune in, and Drop out of the Present Fake News Reality/ It is all Crashing, so if you havent moved on to creating your own, then you will go down with its Crash. 2020