Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A Tale of Two Dropouts: Arts, Humanities, and Education for the Future

By Timothy Hampton

No one at Berkeley would ever encourage a student to drop out of the university. But you can learn a lot from studying what college dropouts do with their lives. Recently, I have been thinking about two famous dropouts who have been in the news.

Observers of the political situation and the state of public discourse have been highlighting the work of Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg famously dropped out of Harvard University to come west and found Facebook, the massive digital platform that he now controls. Facebook’s emergence as a vehicle for spreading political extremism and false information—including from the President of the United States—has led to calls for Zuckerberg to institute and refine controls on the information that his company disseminates. Facebook has done a "civil rights audit" of its policies, but nothing seems about to change in a major way. The threat to reasoned political discourse has become so great that a boycott has sprung up, whereby a number of advertisers have walked away from the platform. Zuckerberg has responded to criticism with platitudes about free speech (as if his private company were the public square) and the free flow of information. Activists who met recently with Zuckerberg and his colleague Sharon Sandberg called them "evasive," and hindered by "moral relativism" when confronted with examples of white supremacy on Facebook. Part of the problem simply seems to be cognitive. As activist Rashad Robinson, who has worked on Facebook's problems, explained recently in the New York Times, Zuckerberg and his colleagues often simply don't seem to understand the implications--for political language, race, and elections--of what their company is doing. Tech executive Ellen Pao recently made the same point in an interview in The Guardian. In the views of these observers, imagination and empathy seem to be in short supply at Facebook. Moral or political consequences seem irrelevant, next to their business model. "I have to keep hope that we can get through to Mark and his team," concludes Robinson.

It is instructive to compare the behavior of Zuckerberg and "his team," seemingly incapable of grasping the broader implications of what they do, with the example of the other famous college dropout recently in the news. This is songwriter, singer, and musician Bob Dylan, who won Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Dylan's most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, has received massive acclaim and celebration in the worlds of art and entertainment. Produced at the ripe young age of 79, Dylan's new contribution debuted at #1 on the pop charts in the UK and has been written about extensively in the press, from learned exegeses to breathless reviews. Without ever saying so explicitly, the record offers a powerful, exquisitely beautiful, reflection on the current state of the United States. It views the moral desert that we inhabit in the age of Trump and offers guideposts, "rough and rowdy ways," through it. From the opening cut, "I Contain Multitudes" (which begins from a line by the poet Walt Whitman) to "Murder Most Foul," a moving, 17-minute long, Shakespeare-inspired, meditation on the death of JFK, the recording attests to the power of art and creativity to heal the spirit in times of catastrophe.

Like Zuckerberg, Dylan is a dropout. He left the University of Minnesota after one semester, in 1961, to go east and pursue a career in music. The contrast with Zuckerberg's approach to his career is instructive. Dylan's work is characterized by change and growth, and by an ongoing process of revision and reinvention. A voracious and curious reader of literature and history, he ranges on the new album from Julius Caesar, to President McKinley, to the bluesman Jimmy Reed. Dylan peppers his songs with phrases from old poets and old newspapers, revitalizing the American language by mining its diversity and variation. His expansive imagination embraces a broad range of artistic forms, from cinema, to jazz, to Border ballads, to philosophy. His remarkable career demonstrates how an ongoing engagement with history, language, and art, can lead to constant creative renewal.

Many of my students want to grow up to be like Mark Zuckerberg. They see their time at Cal as a process of learning a trade; they dream of inventing something that will make them famous and rich, and the sooner the better! As they think about the broader expanses of their lives, however, they might do better to emulate Dylan. Zuckerberg seems stuck, unable to move beyond a single idea, from which he has profited--at a major cost to his fellow citizens. Dylan, by contrast, has been an explorer, constantly placing his art at risk, never losing his moral compass, ranging far and wide, returning constantly to the past to invent the future.

The lesson for us about these two careers is not that one person is--or isn't--a virtuous or less virtuous person. Nor is it a lesson about whether it's better to major in one field than another. It's a lesson about education and about how to approach one's work. And training can help. If we translate Dylan's career into the language of the university, we can see a validation of the creative and critical thinking fostered by the disciplines of the arts and humanities. Dylan's capacious embrace of history and language, his engagement with forms and traditions, his pushing against the boundaries of over-specialization—these are the qualities fostered by the study of the humanities at Berkeley. They should be at the center of any education for the uncertain future that faces us.

As U.C. Berkeley gears up for another year of instruction, it faces large questions about the direction of the campus. These involve, not only our response to the pressure that COVID 19 has placed on instruction and research, but our conception of the type of students we want to have educated for the post-pandemic world. At a time when the humanities are increasingly threatened by budget cuts, unwise funding schemes, and institutional indifference, Berkeley must reaffirm, as we emerge from the pandemic, the importance of the creativity and growth fostered by the arts and humanities. Vocational training is certainly important. But it should never come at the expense of the imagination. Branding should never trump curiosity. If we hope to continue to attract the best students, we should be stressing education for the long run.

Certainly, we don't want to produce dropouts. Our goal should be to train courageous and ethically driven citizens, equipped to redirect their energies in imaginative ways, to retool and reinvent, in whatever field they pursue. It may seem strange to point out that the “disruptive” model of Facebook, about which so much ink was spilled in recent decades, now seems unable to adapt, while an aged poet continues to open new doors to discovery. But the times, they do change.