Academics and Social Life: Mutually Exclusive?

Students at the Claremont Colleges are often troubled by the trilemma of sleep, academic success, and a social life. While I don’t doubt that a heavy academic workload can make it difficult to live a healthy and balanced life, I think that the supposed divide between academic achievement and social interaction is, to a degree, artificial.

Academic life is very social in some ways. STEM students often work together to solve problems and prepare for exams, and class discussion is considered central to a good education in the humanities and social studies. 5C students ought to be especially aware of these intersections, as they are part of what motivates the design of small liberal arts colleges. The size is what enables frequent mentor sessions, engaged class discussions, and visits to office hours.

Of course, a social life built around problem sets and seminars on Chaucer is not, I’m sure, what those troubled by the trilemma have in mind when they think of the social life that they must exchange for greater academic success. Most wouldn’t think to bring a copy of the Canterbury Tales to a college party. The social interaction that one has in the classroom cannot completely replace the social interaction that one has on the dance floor, and vice versa.

Yet both of those types of social interaction sate basic needs for human contact. People who spend an unhappily large amount of time in the library do not just suffer from the gargantuan rate at which they spend their mental energy, but also from the isolation that they suffer. Time spent doing homework by yourself is time not spent interacting with other people, whether that interaction is academic in nature or not.

Of course, most people don’t interact socially only to get homework help—that would be nearly as lonely as not talking to anyone at all. But I have met more friends in math study groups than at parties. Moreover, I have learned nearly as much about people from listening to what they have to say in class discussions as from having dinner with them. Thinking of academics as being in conflict with having good relationships with others and having a high general quality of life simply does not capture the nuance of reality.

So why do we feel as if academic success must come at the expense of relationships? What students really are complaining about when they talk about how much time they spend studying is a lack of balance that prevents them from living a full life. Ideally, what you learn in school will inform and enrich your personal life, and you will be able to bring to bear what you learn from your relationships onto your academic work. Unfortunately, many students at the Claremont Colleges are too driven and disciplined for their own good. Unlike most, they have the ability to make a Faustian trade of socioemotional health for academic success.

This trade is not just an exchange of time spent with friends and loved ones for time spent studying. It also manifests itself in the people who choose to study something they find unfulfilling and personally meaningless in order to fulfill the expectations of their family, their friends, and society at large. The computer science or chemistry student who would really rather be studying literature or psychology is more likely to feel that their studies interfere with their socioemotional health than someone who is choosing what to study based on their intrinsic motivation.

If you cannot see how your studies connect to your life as a whole, you will see academic work as an evil, though one that might be necessary to gain economic security and recognition. The latter motivates far too many people to put themselves in a position where their academic work and the rest of what defines them as a person are at odds. It is this lack of integration that makes having too much work deleterious.

William Schumacher PO '18 is a philosophy major from San Jose, CA.

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