Saahil Desai | Nov. 15, 2013, 7:53 p.m.
It was a Saturday night, and I had once again exiled myself to an academic building to finish my never-ending U.S. Foreign Policy readings. A rare day off from school had once again been spoiled by the colossal amount of homework that tends to accumulate with increased voracity as the semester continues.
At the 5Cs, and surely at other elite colleges, there exists a pervasive culture of busyness. Between classes, extracurricular activities, and whatever remaining time we can salvage for our social lives, most of us remain constantly busy. The other day, a friend remarked that he was so busy he “has to set an alarm seven days a week.” As a sophomore, it’s been alarming to see how markedly busier my classmates and I are in comparison to last year. Introductory classes have made way for their more rigorous upper-level cousins, and one’s stint as a member of a certain organization has, as a sophomore, become a more time-consuming leadership role.
Even at Pomona College, where students are vocally proud of their lack of professional focus, I feel that the busyness culture boils down to an insatiable drive for achievement. Pomona students can’t get enough of achievement, be it in the form of grades, research grants, or leadership positions. As students of an elite college, this high level of achievement is precisely what is expected of us. Honestly, I don’t think I would have attended Pomona had there not been a vibrant culture of achievement. The achievement culture at Pomona—and by association the busyness culture—is an integral component of who we are as students and who we attempt to become post-graduation.
That being said, I wish more people would recognize how deleterious this culture can be. By inundating our lives with activities and remaining perpetually busy, I worry that we only serve to disadvantage ourselves and prevent the type of experiences worth remembering decades from now.
The health effects of busyness culture cannot be avoided. Stress and anxiety seem to be the perpetual state of students on campus, at least on any given weekday. In the midst of a particularly stressful week recently riddled by a slew of midterms and deadlines, I became so stressed that for a few minutes I was incapable of doing any work. I suspect that I am far from the only one. Professor Nicole Weekes of Pomona’s neuroscience department gave a harrowing guest lecture in my psychology class last month. Citing studies done on rats, she conveyed the idea that stress can compromise our immune systems and decrease our quality of life. The stress that is a result of constant academic work and other external obligations inevitably leaves us worse off in terms of both physical and mental health.
These effects are only compounded by a lack of sleep. It’s quite rare to find a student who sleeps the recommended eight hours per night. Instead, most of us resort to caffeine to mitigate our sleep deprivation as we chug through our homework into the pre-dawn stages of the early morning.
But the destructiveness of busyness culture transcends worries of health. The problem with being constantly busy is that one is left with little or no time for oneself. Enriching ourselves as individuals composed of character, morality, and, interests can only occur when we have the time to do so. As students that focus all of our time on academic commitments and extracurricular activities, we aren’t left with any time to nurture the types of interests that make us who we are. Too often, it goes unrecognized that none of us will remember what grade we received on our last politics paper, or precisely what we learned in Introduction to Environmental Analysis. Instead, it is the interests we develop and cultivate now that will drive us through the world and determine our life trajectories.
Over the summer, I had a pretty mundane internship that required me to do nothing more than enter data into Excel for vast periods of time. In some sense, it was precisely the opposite experience from that of college: little to no stress coupled with few other commitments. The hours of mindless computer work for once gave me the time I needed to cultivate my interests and detox from the busyness culture. I listened to lectures and podcasts while I worked, read books in my spare time, and cultivated a real passion for long-form journalism. Had I been in school all summer, I doubt that I would have had the time to explore my interests in the same capacity.
As far as I can tell, busyness culture is a phenomenon at just about any elite institution. In some ways, these schools are failing their students in relation to their less selective peers. Over fall break, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath. In it, Gladwell proposes the idea of a ‘desirable difficulty’: that which seems like a disadvantage at first glance in fact proves to be quite the opposite retrospectively. Using the same framework, students at less selective schools probably have a ‘desirable difficulty’ over students at the 5Cs. While we slave away with academic work, students at schools we scoff at are honing their interests and crafts—turning their perceived difficulties into a clear advantage against Claremont students in the long-term.
As students, we are partly to blame for busyness culture. Most of the stress and anxiety we feel is self-imposed as a result of the extracurricular activities we participate in and the classes we take. We must learn not to submit to busyness culture. Instead of boosting one’s resume with a myriad of activities, what’s the harm in participating in only one non-academic endeavor? Professors aren’t completely off the hook, either. There comes a point when giving more work and more reading does not equate to more learning for students, and we have long since passed that point.
Most of us came to the 5Cs because we wanted to be challenged academically through a rigorous curriculum and stimulating experiences outside of the classroom. But by obsessing with academics and all the other activities we accrue throughout our years here, we forget to treat ourselves as more than information-processing machines. The relevant adage at any elite college goes, “Work, friends, sleep. Pick two.” Unless we can pick four—work, friends, sleep, and ourselves—we are doing ourselves a disservice.