Bradford students begin college with a backward look at '60s

While Harvard prepared the celebration the whole world would read about, 40 miles north on Route 93 a very different sort of college exercise was taking place. About 135 incoming freshmen were gathered in the atrium of a modern classroom building on the campus of Bradford College, a small and innovative liberal arts school near the New Hampshire border.

``They had a cause,'' one young woman said, a touch of envy in her voice. ``They made a stand against something.''

``I think they wanted attention,'' countered a classmate, clearly less impressed.

``They run the country now,'' offered a third.

If you came of age in the late '60s or early '70s, then you are the ``they'' to whom the new freshmen were referring. The Bradford faculty had decided that the freshmen needed a more intense orientation than the school had provided in previous years. So the class of 1990 spent three days watching movies such as ``Easy Rider'' and ``Hair,'' reading Norman Mailer's ``Armies of the Night,'' and meeting in groups of 25 to discuss these materials. The purpose was to try to understand the America of 1968 -- when Dustin Hoffman starred in ``The Graduate'' and LBJ said he wouldn't run -- the year in which most of them were born.

``Is your generation much like 1968?'' asked Bob Smart, the teacher who organized the affair, at the concluding session.

``Nooooooooooo,'' came back the reply.

There were touches of nostalgia, such as a tie-dye fest at the end. And one mother outfitted her daughter with the soundtrack to ``Easy Rider'' and other records appropriate to the occasion. But academically, the idea was to give the students a taste of critical thinking by approaching the subject through history, sociology, art and music, and the like -- the major lenses they would be using during their undergraduate years. In addition, Mr. Smart and his colleagues wanted to engage the students in a way that would provide an emotional connection to the task ahead. ``Last year, there was an enormous lack of caring'' among the entering class, Smart observed.

Today's freshmen didn't spend their childhoods agonizing over the '60s any more than that generation had grown up reliving World War II and the Depression. Still, their comments didn't quite match the popular notion that today's young people have nothing on their minds beside the Law School Aptitude Test.

``When they study your class 20 years from now,'' Smart asked the group, ``what do you think they will find?'' Some of the answers were predictable: ``More self-centered.'' ``Hard-working.'' Then a young woman ventured a different thought: ``Angry.''

Angry? ``Over what?'' Smart asked.

``We are angry in a different way,'' she responded. ``There is a difference between quiet anger and open anger.'' One of her classmates was more specific. ``We don't have common causes enough to pull us together.''

Smart asked the group what it would take to get them to go to Washington. ``A war.'' ``Nuclear bombs going off,'' came the responses. But then a voice piped up from the back, ``But should we wait for that?''

Even at the peak of anti-Vietnam war fervor, Smart points out, only a small portion of American students actually took part in protests. Smart, who wears non-designer dungarees and speaks thoughtfully behind an ample beard, says he and his colleagues came to realize that the new students ``aren't any better or worse. They're just different. The times are different.'' And part of that difference, he says, is national leadership that ``has verified that going with what is easiest and most convenient'' is the best thing to do. ``The kids just aren't getting role models or encouragement.''

Which doesn't mean the desire isn't there.

Justine MacClean is a freshman from San Francisco, who looks as healthy as the cross-country runner she is. The biggest surprise to her, she said afterward, was discovering that America had been so divided in the '60s. ``I didn't know it was a war between two different cultures,'' she said, citing footage of police confrontations with demonstrators. What impressed her most about the era? ``It was the spirit, everybody caring about everybody else,'' she said.

Ralph Nader made a strong impression when he spoke at the school last year, Smart says. And there may be another link between the '60s and today, in the example of John F. Kennedy. One student, who preferred not to give her name, said after the session that she had thought the '60s were just ``violent and rebellious.'' Now she's inclined to think ``it was worth something.''

This student, whose father is a semi-employed industrial worker in the Midwest, originally planned on going into medicine, but ``only because of the money.'' When she discovered she didn't like science, she decided on politics instead. Her inspiration, she says, was John Kennedy. ``Kennedy made it like everybody has a part to do . . . [he] made it so the people were the heroes.''

Smart said he hoped he and his colleagues were dispassionate in talking about something that was still very close to them. Yet there was something about that decade he and the others wanted to pass along.

``I hope you get a sense of the importance of caring about things,'' he told the freshmen as the meeting disbanded. ``You don't have to take to the streets. . . . But if [the caring] isn't there, then there really isn't much we can teach you.''

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