Why I Quit Graduate School


It was 1964. After a year and a half abroad, I returned to the US, sick with hepatitis. How did I get hepatitis? It was from a non-disposable needle used for my yellow fever inoculation. That was in Iran. My American landlord had stolen all my money, and I had to go to the free Institut Pasteur for my last shot. The prior shots had cost me $1.00 each, at the US Army hospital. I needed these shots to go to India. It was there, six weeks later, that I came down sick.

So, back at home, I figured I would give college another try. I wanted to know what was going on with us human beings. The future for the human race, I had decided , wasn’t looking good. At Cal-Berkeley I invented an individual major called Human Ecology. This led to graduate school in Anthropology, first there and then at Harvard. Things were going OK, and I was looking into possible thesis subjects. Then, I soured on the idea of becoming a college professor, and upped and quit.  The following statement describes one circumstance that contributed to this “souring”:

“My particular interest, at Harvard, was in the evolution of human behavior, which led me to enroll in a high level graduate seminar in evolutionary biology (Biology 248), taught by Professor Ernst Mayr. Professor Mayr was, at the time, the most renowned evolutionary biologist in the world. Participation in the seminar required me to write a thesis, and Professor Mayr selected a topic for me: to demonstrate that black Americans were breeding at a rate greater than white Americans (which he believed to be true). He went on to tell me that he considered the former to be less intelligent than the latter, and, therefore, this difference in reproductive rates between the races would lead to a lowering of the average intelligence of the American population. Finally, he found this circumstance to be very alarming, because he valued intelligence above all else.

I didn’t, at the time of this conversation, express my distaste for his ideas. Rather, I went back to his book, ‘Animal Species and Evolution’, and studied the last chapter, which deals with human evolution. In this chapter, he advances a Social Darwinist agenda, by, first, identifying genes for intelligence as being ‘desirable’ and ‘valuable’ (pp. 658-662). He then goes on to state: ‘Perhaps it is not unreasonable to assume that a person with a good record of achievement in certain areas of human endeavor has on the average a more desirable gene combination than a person whose achievements are less spectacular. In our present society, the superior person is punished by the government in numerous ways, by taxes and otherwise, which makes it difficult for him to raise a large family’ (p. 661). He next argues for a return to laissez-faire economics – so that a superior (i.e. financially successful) person can raise a large family. He ends his presentation on the subject by supporting the ‘sperm bank proposal of Muller’, which advocates mass insemination with the sperm of great intellectuals.

Suffice it to say I did not write a thesis on the subject he assigned me. On the contrary, I took issue with everything he stood for. This, of course, was not well received, and when I defended my thesis before the class, his pet graduate students tore into me. This incident was, for me, the beginning of a growing disillusionment with academia, which led, ultimately, to my dropping out of Harvard.”

When the time came to leave, I distributed this poem to my teachers and colleagues:

Parting Shot

My friends
I would like to have stayed
and played
for Truth, the Knowledge
that shall set you free
the game of reasoned discourse
but, you see
soon will be the shitstorm

Now, far be it from me
to tell you
what to do
but, by the same token
don’t tell me
I need the Ph.D
to know enough
to say “stuff it”

If it’s games you’d play
take a tip from poker
and drop out
when the odds are against you

I know how that goes
against your grain
to think in probablistic terms
in terms of loss and gain
I’m sure the world could
be saved, but will it?

Yes, will it
Will it with all your might
but that won’t do the job
as long as you’re a job-holder
something bolder is called for

Can you go away?
Not as a strategy to save the world
but as a strategy to save
your own ass,
there’s no mass solutions
because there’s too much mass

When they all start running
I don’t want to be over-run
and there’s still a chance
to have some fun

You say you want to stay in the city?
You don’t like the woods?
Pity

Well … I’ve had some fun. Meanwhile, the “mass” has more than doubled in size, and we  now confront a development unanticipated in the 1960s – climate change. This is undeniably the start of the shitstorm. So … I don’t regret the choice I made. My only regret now is that I probably won’t live long enough to see how it all plays out.

Steve Miller, Cathedral Pk, Yosemite, 1973

Steve Miller, Cathedral Pk, Yosemite, 1973

About believesteve

I am a photographer and have published a book of photography and accompanying text on running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The first (print) edition is out of print, but a second edition is available as an iBook (eBook) through the iTunes bookstore. All Grand Canyon, river and nature lovers will enjoy my book: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-grand/id672492447?ls=1
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