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

March 30, 2015
by Pat Joseph
Timothy Leary addressing a crowd

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.

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