Nonstop: Today’s superhero undergraduates do “3,000 things at 150 percent.”
January 3, 2013
What is the price of academic success? Is the value of a college education measured by the education, the college experience or some ethereal blend of the two? Are those things supposed to be jam packed into an undergraduates life? Are schedules meant to organize every aspect of a student’s life, leaving spontaneity and impulsive behavior out of the picture?
These questions matter. Spontaneity and impulse are in many ways, like fingerprints. We are each unique and those things are reflective of our own personality. Spontaneity and impulse are stimulated by our own unique internal processes. They are an expression of our unique selves.
Like the jazz musician or singer who improvises on an old classic or the photographer who finds a new way to look at the world around us, our impulsive behaviors are one way others see us for who we really are- and that is just as important as the other, more deliberate behaviors we exhibit.
So what happens when life is scripted?
YOU WAKE UP EACH MORNING with a fever; you feel like a shadow of yourself. But no time for sickness today—the Adams House intramural crew has one of its thrice-weekly practices at 6 A.M., and you…will…row. Some mornings, you watch the sunrise from Lamont Library after hitting your study groove there around 11 the night before and bushwhacking through assignments during the quiet time between 3 A.M.and 5. The rower and late-night scholar is Becky Cooper ’10. “Lamont is beautiful at 5 A.M.—my favorite time,” she says. “Sunlight streams in.” There’s plenty to do—Cooper is taking five courses, concentrating in literature but still pre-med: “I can’t close doors.”
She writes out her daily schedule to the minute: “Shower, 7:15-7:20.” Lunch might be at the Signet Society, the private, arts-oriented, undergraduate club where she is vice-president. She also belongs to the Isis, a female social club, and has held the post of Dionysus at the Harvard Advocate, planning social events like the literary quarterly’s spring dinner (which she revived) for 70 attendees. Cooper has an omnivorous appetite for learning and experience: new fascinations constantly beckon, and she dives in wholeheartedly. Yet the ceaseless activity leaves little space or time for reflection on who she is or what she wants. “I’m more terrified of being bored than busy,” she explains. “Though I’m scared I’ll work myself into a pile of dust if I don’t learn when to stop.”
Cooper has always been super-active. Even in elementary and middle school, she “adopted an intense work ethic” and participated in track, basketball, chorus, a pottery class, and gymnastics. At the “pressure cooker” Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, she put the shot and racewalked for the track squad, and added cheerleading. After track meets and practices on Saturdays, she had a Sunday job as a docent in a science museum. And from seventh grade on, she attended summer camps for gifted students at upstate college campuses.
At Harvard, she has hosted a two-hour weekly jazz show on WHRB, and as a freshman acted in Ivory Tower, the long-running Harvard TV soap opera viewable on YouTube. (Last summer, she also acted in an independent film shot by a friend in Miami, learning American Sign Language for the part.) In the summer of 2007, Cooper tasted some ravishing ravioli di zucca (pumpkin)—“I was in heaven”—and determined to learn Italian and cook in Italy. As a sophomore, she got a job with Harvard University Dining Services, working with their consultant, cookbook author Mollie Katzen, and the next summer, after two months in Paris with theInternational Herald Tribune, was baking in Italy as a pastry chef and speaking only Italian.
As a Crimson staffer, Cooper wrote a food column every other week for the arts section. Frequently, her classes and meetings ran from 8 A.M. until 11 P.M., when she went over her column, line by line, with another Crimson editor. She returned to college this spring after taking the fall term off to continue a summer job assistingNew Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik. “It’s exhausting—here now, where next?—continually hopping from one thing to another,” she says. “You never let yourself rest. Harvard kids don’t want to do 5,000 things at 97 percent; they’d rather do 3,000 things at 150 percent.”
There’s no irony intended: “That’s the standard operating procedure,” Cooper explains. “College here is like daring yourself to swim the length of a swimming pool without breathing. A lap is a semester. I want to do everything I possibly can.” She works on a 28-hour day, she says: some days sleeping 10 hours, others, two. She can describe different levels of exhaustion. One level, she explains, is a “goofy feeling, like feeling drunk all the time; you’re not quite sure what’s going on. Then there’s this extra level of exhaustion, where you feel dead behind your eyes. The last four weeks, that’s where I’ve been. I get sick a lot.”
Keeping Up with the Einsteins
AMAZINGLY ENOUGH, Cooper is not unusual at Harvard College. Students today routinely sprint through jam-packed daily schedules, tackling big servings of academic work plus giant helpings of extracurricular activity in a frenetic tizzy of commitments. They gaze at their Blackberries (nicknamed “Crackberries” for their addictive pull) throughout the day to field the digital traffic: e-mail and text messages, phone calls, Web access, and their calendars. Going or gone are late-night bull sessions with roommates and leisurely two-hour lunches—phone calls and texting punctuate meals, anyway.
“They are unbelievably achieving,” says Judith H. Kidd, formerly associate dean for student life and activities, who retired from Harvard last year. “They are always on. They prefer to be busy all the time, and multitask in ways I could not imagine. Students will sign up for three or four activities and take one of them up to practically NGO level. They were organizing international conferences.”
There’s a wide consensus that today’s undergraduates make up the most talented, accomplished group of polymaths ever assembled in Harvard Yard: there’s nothing surprising about meeting a first-chair cellist in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra who is also a formidable racer for the cycling club, or a student doing original research on interstellar dark matter who organized a relief effort in sub-Saharan Africa. “You could say it’s a high-end problem,” says dean of admissions Bill Fitzsimmons ’67, Ed.D. ’71, “but one of the dilemmas for the kind of multitalented people who come to places like Harvard is that they could do almost anything. Andespecially if that’s true, you need to think hard about what it is you really value, which direction is right for you.”
The paradox is that students now live in such a blur of activity that idle moments for such introspection are vanishing. The French film director Jean Renoir once declared, “The foundation of all civilization is loitering,” saluting those unstructured chunks of time that give rise to creative ideas. If Renoir is right, and if Harvard students are among the leaders of the future, then civilization is on the precipice: loitering is fast becoming a lost art. And if the tornado of achievement that whirls through Cambridge has its obvious rewards, there are, as with most tornadoes, downsides.
Sleep deprivation, for example: varsity athletes, representing about 20 percent of undergraduates, seem to be the only sizable student category to sleep and rise at roughly conventional hours, according to Harry Lewis ’68, Ph.D. ’74, McKay professor of computer science and former dean of Harvard College. At Becky Cooper’s high school, the standing joke was: “Friends, grades, sleep: you only get two.” Sleep was nearly always the odd one out. Cooper attributes her own frequent low-level infections and colds to exhaustion. Undergraduates tend to push themselves relentlessly and to disbelieve physical limits. “Harvard kids,” Cooper says, “think of themselves as superheroes.”
New technologies vastly enlarge the game of keeping up with the Einsteins. “If you aren’t on Facebook, you feel guilty, you feel like you’re being a bad citizen, or worse, that you are out of it,” says Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner ’65, Ph.D. ’71, who studies excellence in the realm of work. “One thing we discovered in our research is that kids look up people whom they don’t know on Facebook, because they want to see how much they’re achieving. If you’re on theCrimson, but someone else is on the Crimson and the swimming team, well, then….”
The explosion of busyness has occurred not in academics (most students still take four courses a semester), but largely in extracurricular activities. “Extracurriculars are now as important as coursework,” says Gardner. “I wouldn’t have said that 40 years ago.” The number of student organizations grew almost sevenfold from 1960 to 2007-08, skyrocketing from 60 groups to 416, although undergraduate enrollment grew only about 10 percent, from about 6,000 to 6,655. In recent years, the College has added an average of 40 to 50 new student groups annually (though about half don’t endure), says David Friedrich, M.T.S. ’04, assistant dean of Harvard College for student life. In singing, for example, there are now 19 small a cappella groups at the College; before the Radcliffe Pitches were founded in 1975, the Harvard Krokodiloes were the sole such group on campus….