Where Have All the College Hippies Gone?

A new crop of college students is getting comfortable after a few weeks on campuses across the United States. But essayist Mark Oppenheimer sees a very different group of freshmen than when he was a student, and wonders... Where have all the college hippies gone?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Finally, dear listeners, our country is settling into fall. Even in sunny Southern California, the morning air is cool. Writer Mark Oppenheimer lives in a New England college town, and along with watching the coloring of autumn leaves, he enjoys observing the annual fall rites of a new school term. But after weeks of watching, this year he feels something, or someone, is missing.

MARK OPPENHEIMER:

New Haven, Connecticut, has five colleges and universities, and their students seem to return to school all at once. One day, the streets are uncluttered, and the next day the students are back in all their varieties: the student government jocks ready for debate team tryouts; the athletes, beefed up from a summer of weight lifting; the goths, in all black with metal chains clipped to their belt loops.

Every year, the subcultures replicate themselves. Lately, though, I have noticed a change. When I graduated from college in 1996, the most persistent subculture was the tie-dyed-wearing, Grateful Dead-listening, hackey-sack-playing, pot-smoking hippie. The boys would have long hair, sometimes in dreadlocks; the girls wore long flowing skirts and parted their hair right down the middle, Janis Joplin style.

But in the past few years, their numbers have thinned, and this year, hippies seem to have vanished entirely. It may have something to do with the death of Jerry Garcia 10 years ago. With the end of The Grateful Dead, one of the central rituals of collegiate hippie life, the road trip to a Dead show, is gone. The band Phish picked up some of the slack, but a year ago, they also disbanded.

Hippie music is getting harder to find, and hippies need their music. I was never a hippie or a Deadhead, so none of this should really matter to me, but it does. I miss hippies, and not just because some of them were my best friends in college. I miss them because their central philosophy has always been: Take a year off, follow a band around the country, slow down. In the nine years since I graduated, almost everyone I know has become career-obsessed and impossibly busy, and if there's one thing the hippies are against it's frenetic busy-ness.

Once in my sophomore year in college, my hippie friend Adam pulled a chair up to my lunch table. I was busy cramming for a test, but he didn't care. `We have an extra ticket for the Dead show at Madison Square Garden tonight,' he told me. `You're coming.' `But I have a physics test,' I said. `Doesn't matter,' he told me. `You're coming.' I wish I could say that Adam talked me into it, but he didn't. I stayed on campus and studied for my physics test. A year later, Jerry Garcia was dead.

As his memory has faded, so too has the culture that worshipped him, the culture that not only preached against materialism, but actually embraced a lifestyle that made materialism irrelevant. Hippies aren't like the slackers we heard so much about in the 1990s. Hippies are enthusiasts, and they're enthusiastic about music, love and peace. It's an important message, one we're poorer without. Somewhere right now, in a college town like this one, there's a kid who should be blowing off a physics test. I just hope there is a hippie around to talk him into it.

(Soundbite of "Uncle John's Band")

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Come hear Uncle John's band by the riverside.

CHADWICK: Mark Oppenheimer is the editor of the New Haven Advocate.

(Soundbite of "Uncle John's Band")

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) ...here beside the rising tide. Come hear Uncle John's band playing to the tide.

(Credits)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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