It's all starting to look like a bad acid flash-back, or maybe acid reflux: the 40th anniversary of that annus mirabilis, 1968. I usually look back to my college days with nostalgia, but when the details come into focus I remember how perfectly awful that time was, and how I was torn up with guilt and fear.
I completely identified with the Counterculture--the only place, I thought, where I could be accepted and have a life. The straight people hated us and were out to get us. At the same time, I didn't care for the Counterculture one bit. It wasn't the violence that bothered me but the flakiness and anti-intellectualism, the talk about vibes, astrological signs and karma, the directionlessness, ignorance and plain stupidity. When I wasn't with my trusted friends I had to talk the talk: "Yeah, like, um, like wow that is great stuff. Like, um, yeah I'm a Capricorn." It wasn't just that I couldn't have a conversation about the things that interested me but that I had to fudge and muddy my talk and put up with the muddled, fudged, boring talk of guys who as far as I could tell had no interests or aspirations and weren't much more than vegetables (how else was I going to get laid?).
I liked school. I loved my academic work and wanted to be a professor so that I could do this work for the rest of my life. I was torn up with shame and guilt for not being a good hippy, for not being in solidarity with my people, for not dropping out, for hating Marcuse, Marx and Continental Philosophy, for grade-grubbing, and above all for wanting a conventional family, a house in the suburbs and a regular job. I never forgave myself for missing the demonstration at the Chicago Democratic convention because I was writing a paper on Mill's phenomenalism.
When classes were canceled after Kent state I was convinced that Academia was going to shut down before I could get my piece of the pie. At the teach-ins I attended our political leaders assured us that traditional colleges would be replaced by Free Universities offering peer-taught classes in meditation and crafts. There would be no more paying students--or paid professors. Colleges would become communes--we would grow our own food in the quad. There would be no more marrying or giving in marriage. We'd work the farm in the morning and sit around on the grass in the afternoon learning macrame. Abstract, irrelevant academic subjects would be abolished. There would be Marxist study circles in the evening at which guys would plan the Revolution while chicks in granny dresses or overalls cooked whole grains and dried beans from scratch. The Age of Aquarius was coming--and I was terrified, angry and guilty.
Maybe it would have been better if I'd gone to a big state university with a good academic reputation that catered for middle class strivers. But I went to a small liberal arts college for rich underachievers, none of whom had conventional middle class aspirations, and most of whom had no aspirations at all. They would drift for a decade or two, knowing that whenever they wanted to get back on track their families would bail them out. I could understand why the hardhats wanted to beat them up.