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ISSUE 115 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/8/2002

Running around the college clock

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 8, 2002

Not long ago, a conversation was overheard in the cafeteria in which one student recounted to another the overwhelming nature of a previous day's schedule. The ambitious young man related how he had left his room at seven in the morning and returned at eleven at night, with each moment in between programmatically blocked to include class, music rehearsals, meetings, working out, running errands, and other miscellaneous but equally necessary activities. Only after the accomplishment of all these things, at 11 p.m., was he able to begin studying, which extended until about 1 a.m., when finally he was able to rest for six hours until the next frenzied day began. The scenario is one that is no doubt familiar to many students -- especially at a liberal arts institution such as St. Olaf, where students are encouraged to pursue a variety of interests and actively engage in community life. Students jam-pack their schedules for good reason, it would seem -- to gain the most from their undergraduate experience. And while students can often be heard bemoaning their constant state of exhaustion or lack of free time, one might suspect that at the heart of the matter, students wouldn't have it any other way. Students love being busy. They thrive under pressure. They are driven by the energy of the daily bustle. They need to be occupied. In April 2001, the Atlantic Monthly published a study conducted by journalist and social commentator David Brooks that examined a phenomenon that Brooks termed the 'Organization Kid.' Although Brooks' findings are primarily a result of his time talking to students at Princeton University, he claims that the phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Princeton. This mindset pervades institutions of higher learning across the country. According to Brooks, this generation of college students has been programmed since youth to recognize and emphasize achievement. He chronicles examples from infancy to adolescence where we have been stimulated and directed toward continual personal and intellectual growth. He maintains that in addition to constant desire for accomplishment, aspiring young leaders are more respectful and less questioning of authority than they have been since the 1920's. In fact, Brooks compares today's generation with the pre-Depression era, indicating that both generations enjoyed the benefits of economic prosperity and experiences live of little hardship. Of course, the events of September 11, 2001 alter this viewpoint, and Brooks published a follow-up article afterwards, stating that he hoped that the situation may have a transforming effect. But even after the World Trade Center attacks, the meritocracy lives on. The meritocracy is not necessarily negative, Brooks points out. After all, it produces motivated, capable, and responsible individuals that generally serve our societies well. Brooks makes a distinction between the "prudential" approach to education - that is, one that is seen as a means to an end - and the "poetic" approach - an end in and of itself. He recognizes the utilitarian benefits of the prudential education, but feels as though it wrongly substitutes achievement and accomplishment for development of personal character. He writes, "One sometimes has the sense that all the frantic efforts to regulate safety, to encourage academic achievement, and to keep busy are ways to compensate for missing conceptions of character and virtue. Not having a vocabulary to discuss what is good and true, people can at least behave well. It's hard to know what eternal life means, but if you don't smoke you can have a long life. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be a saint, but it's easy to see what it is to be a success." He envisions an educational philosophy that values self-discovery over self-promotion, truth and virtue over accomplishment and success. Many liberal arts colleges profess their dedication to these ideals on paper, but quickly abandon these notions when faced with the temporal temptations of the meritocracy. Brooks concludes his article: "Maybe the lives of the meritocrats are so crammed because the stakes are so small. All this ambition and aspiration is looking for new tests to ace, new clubs to be president of, new services to perform, but finding that none of these challenges is the ultimate challenge, and none of the rewards is the ultimate reward."

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