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Are you a Yippie or a Yuppie?

If there are any significant changes, please call me atx. 3-3331 or (home) 491-5647. -Harry Atwater

Guest Column/Harry A. Atwater

This Sunday I heard a radio debate between Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin called "Are You a Yippie or a Yuppie?"

Rubin said: if the acronym IRA makes you think of the Irish Republican Army, you're a yippie. But if you think that IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account, then you're a yuppie. It was strange to hear Jerry Rubin debating his former Chicago Seven codefendant, but Rubin has "joined America rather than fighting against it," exhorting young people to use their enterprise, earning power, and the institutions they're entering to affect change.

In order to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem, Rubin suggested we have to work from within, and that negativity and cynicism are all that remain in the hearts of baked-over activists like Hoffman.

Hoffman countered that Rubin's "world is as narrow as his tie." He lamented that today's college campuses have become "hotbeds of social rest."

We have to think through today's issues for ourselves, in their own social context.

Next year's entering student was a newborn baby when Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were in court in Chicago, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He or she was a year old when Jimi Hendrix played his chilling "Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. The Beatles broke up, ending a decade of connecting music to popular culture.

Next year's freshman was two years old when National Guardsmen killed four students in a protest at Kent State, the same year as the first Earth Day. The Watergate break-in came two years later.

This student was in the second grade the day helicopters airlifted Americans out of the embassy in Saigon, ending America's involvement in Vietnam.

Ronald Reagan has been president for almost a quarter of this freshman's life.

It comes as no surprise that Newsweek named 1984 "The Year of the Yuppie." What happened? Was the generation before ours "Big Chilled" out of political and social participation in the eighties? Is there less to be concerned about now? Some issues have come to influence mainstream politics: the women's movement and nuclear arms control to name two.

But this is a time when economic issues are paramount, especially in personal terms. The push to contend with economic reality has sapped our concern for complex issues. It has compelled us to believe that our powers to affect change in our own lives -- to say nothing of society as a whole -- must be modest. The medium of our expression is no longer words, but money. This has led us to define our entire culture in terms of money: how much money Doug Flutie signed for, or how many records Michael Jackson sold often eclipses the quality of the throw or the tune of the hit song.

Why does a discussion of values have relevance to this freshman? Because, as a graduate, he or she will have enormous economic power. But graduating students' goals are often more conservative than those of freshmen, in part I think because MIT is a somewhat sobering experience. Virtually everyone who comes here was a star in high school. Suddenly, many find themselves academically average for the first time.

This fact, coupled with nagging reminders of economic reality, may cause students to make more conventional career choices than even they themselves had anticipated. There is an incredible irony here: MIT students have more potential economic power and flexibility than almost any other students. Students here are creative and capable.

Yet how many of us have thought of a career doing exactly what we want? How many of us have thought of creating our own jobs, which satisfy both our professional goals and our social concern? How many of us have considered putting our technical expertise to work to address societal problems in the government or non-profit organizations?

How many have thought of learning the elements of something that's personally important, and using this knowledge as a consultant? Many of us have briefly considered one of these alternatives, but have always found them incompatible with available opportunities.

Finding the opportunities to do exactly what you want to do may be difficult but not impossible. It may require a little looking in different places. It will definitely require the belief that it can be done. Many fields are underrepresented at MIT, but that shouldn't preclude them as choices.

Obviously, alternatives are not for everyone, and MIT students can and will make considerable positive contributions in any field. But for those who are looking for a career that integrates personal values with professional skills in unconventional ways, the alternatives are there.

Let's find them.