A Finale for Finals?

“I was up all night finishing my philosophy senior thesis on what it means to be human.

During the last weeks, as a result of stressing over this thesis, I have not been able to be with people I want to be with, sleep a healthy amount, and have actually had relationships ruined by my lack of availability. Ironic.”

This is education? The person who related this to me is not indolent, but an overachiever. Therefore, for whatever her classes call her to achieve, this is what it looks like to overachieve it. Is ‘it’ education?

One week until finals, and walking around campus, this conversation repeats like a nervous twitch:

“Hey, what’s up? How’re you?”

“Exhausted. I have so much work to get done.”

“Yeah…Yes. Me too.”

“Hang in there. Two more weeks.”

“Yeah. We should hang out! …sometime.”

“Definitely.” [Both knowing it will not happen.]

I understand the need for productivity and hard-work, but sometimes the type of output demanded in the university game becomes absurd. The students with time to cultivate relationships normally only do so by substituting it for their classes’ agendas. The ‘good students’ defer community for studying.

Is the deferral necessary for achieving the purpose of ‘higher education’? Is the purpose to accrue cold facts and a profitable career?

Most teachers would tell you that education is more than job-security. However, in the culture’s common approach to education, the discussion deviates from that view. If you look at the “Education” page of the Wall St. Journal, in a moment you’ll realize that every entry has to do with material standards of education’s value—college application strategies, standardized testing statistics, post-collegiate employment, etc. ad nauseam.

One such article in particular caught my eye. As a friend of students who will be graduating in a couple weeks, as well as being a student myself, one might expect that I would be grabbed by the tantalizingly frightful title, “The Curse of the Class of 2009.”

What is this ‘curse’?:

Eradication of the educated?? Nope.

Impending worldwide war? Nope.

…unemployment? Not even.

Murray identifies that “…the consequences of graduating in a downturn are long-lasting. They include lower earnings, a slower climb up the occupational ladder and a widening gap between the least- and most-successful grads.” However, the most ’successful’ people I know, (and by that I mean those who seem to most experience life richly), are not the wealthiest people I know. However, they are often the most educated people I know. Murray said in her article that, “a college degree isn’t an automatic ticket to upward mobility.” True, but a college education just might be, if we’re willing to redefine ‘upward mobility’ as indicating something other than ‘social status’.

Since when do we equate ‘education’ with ‘degree’? If degree becomes an end in itself, and not an indicator of a non-tangible possession, the student’s work is superfluous. The ‘C’ students become the intelligent ones—why waste time going beyond what is necessary for the degree?

Obviously, I completely reject that view on education. In Murray’s article, a college grad who now works two low-paying jobs was quoted, ‘“I don’t think anyone went to college and said, ‘I want to graduate and make $25,000 a year.’” In her words, I see that even after gaining ‘education’, missing the value of knowledge apart from its lucrative consequences is still possible.

No wonder campus is so stressed. Productivity becomes the pressure when gain is the goal. In an article from 2003 entitled, “Hello to College Joys: Keep Stress Off Campus,” NY Times contributor Jane Brody wrote,

“…for an increasing number of students, the college experience is marred by chronic anxiety, stress and distress.

“In recent years more than 80 percent of campuses have noted significant increases in serious psychological problems, including severe stress, depression, anxiety and panic attacks…”

This is the path of the materialist education. At this cost, who is the person who makes the 6-figures: what will the student become but either a vicious, competitive cog or a nervous wreck?

All of that culminates into the question of where the balance lies between free creation and required production in educational cultivation. I will leave the tension here, mostly because I have yet to find it myself, but also because the discussion should continue. Dialogue on education’s actual purpose contrasted with the purpose our society identifies should always continue, not cease in illusory, neat resolutions.

If nothing else, perhaps in pursuing the question, we’ll learn something.

Published by

Robin Dembroff

Robin Dembroff is a student at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, pursuing degrees in Philosophy and English Literature. Her writing has been recognized by the Visalia Times Delta, Ayn Rand Institute, Michael L. Roston Creative Writing Contest, Torn Curtain – The Zine, Biola English Guild’s St. John the Apostle Paper Conference, and the Biola History/Gov’t/Social Science Department’s J.O. Henry Award.

  • http://www.nowhere.com TheCheese

    Pretty pedestrian points. It’s as if your rediscovering the most basic problems in life in front of us, and making the basic solutions(like striking a healthy balance) some dramatized mystery. I don’t find all your pathos persuasive when your content is so unimaginative or when it seems to be the product of very-basic thought. You forgot to write “All work and no play makes John a dull-boy”

    If your “overachiever” friend really finds himself in that problem at the end of senior year, it’s a good indicator that they wasted the last three years finding out all sorts of junk without finding out how to make their social/physical state healthy. Who cares how much you know if you die at 40 because of getting not sleep. People who dramatize or are secretly proud of their sleeplessness get everything that’s coming to them.

    Do you need me to explain dating or having a healthy diet hon?

  • ZSDP

    That seems needlessly harsh, Cheese. In fact, I might point out that your passion (Wrath?) is less persuasive than Ms. Dembroff’s, if only because of the old law of honey and vinegar.

  • pentamom

    While I agree that there are ways of seeking and achieving balance that this student is probably overlooking, it’s a false assumption that a short-term burst of stressful work that interferes with other important life qualities is inherently a negative. Outside academia, whether in the professional world, or homelife, there are occasional, legitimate things that come up and demand a great deal of short-term attention, with resultant short-term sacrifice of other goods. For example, giving birth to and caring for a newborn, moving house, the wrap-up of a major long-term professional project, getting your basement drywalled before the spring rains come — your relationships might suffer for a few weeks while you attend to these things, but you derive a definite benefit, and you can rebuild relationships and focus on other interests before these things hit and after they calm down. THIS IS NOT INHERENTLY BAD. It’s bad if this characterizes your life week after week, month after month, year after year. But if it’s the kind of short-term intense focus on one thing that ends when a stated short-term goal is met, that’s not called a “problem,” that’s called “life.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=545652320 Rachel Motte

    Pentamom,

    I agree with you, provided these bursts of frenetic activity are short-lived. For many students, they aren’t – and once you graduate, it can take a long time to unlearn the workload-induced habits you picked up as an undergrad. Many students spend all four (or five) of their college years teetering on the edge of burnout, and this edge doesn’t always soften when classes end.

  • JillD

    I graduated from a UC in 1976 and don’t recall this sort of burn-out at all. I did have a good GPA and majored in biology, so it’s not like I was a C student in sociology (no offense to soc majors intended.) So, have colleges become more demanding since then, or is it possible that high schools today require so much less of students than they did “back then” that students aren’t prepared to work hard when they hit college? I know that “back then,” there was no such thing as a high school GPA above a 4.0. There has been much grade-flation over the years. If you’re breathing, you’ll get a “C.” Teachers are afraid now to give out “F’s.” They weren’t “back then.”

    I know of a student who took AP calculus and received an “A” at our local high school and who went on to FAIL calculus at UCLA, and not for lack of trying. One small piece of evidence, but I wonder how much of that goes on.

  • pentamom

    “For many students, they aren’t – and once you graduate, it can take a long time to unlearn the workload-induced habits you picked up as an undergrad.”

    Depending on circumstances, I’d say that a four-year burst of frenetic work is so unreasonable as to be by definition wrong to pursue. If it were, we’d have no doctors and other people in professions that demand a high level of training or a great deal of difficulty (e.g., soldiers, church-planters, you name it). I honestly think the problem is not with a full-on concentration with one thing for a limited period of time (even multiple years) but with the assumption that patterns, once established, are “too hard” to change when circumstances change. Sure, it’s hard to “unlearn those habits” but that’s part of life — living wisely in the circumstances in which you find yourself. I really think that we have to do less of trying to structure everything so that we aren’t tripped up by anything, and more focusing on doing whatever we’re doing, as well as we can (in all the relevant respects.) So, if you’re in a work-induced burst of single-focus, do your best, and don’t sacrifice more relationships than you have to. But don’t fear the big projects and challenges because of “what they might do to you,” unless they really are things that make it impossible or next to impossible to live well over the long haul. Just determine that they won’t “do it to you” after all.

  • pentamom

    Oops, my first sentence should read:

    Depending on circumstances, I’d say that a four-year burst of frenetic work is NOT so unreasonable as to be by definition wrong to pursue.