Harvard Kids: On Speed Dial Where Life Is A Blur

SMW, September 26, 2010 4:58 PM


Previously published by The Daily Riff 2/10

"Harvard kids don't want to do 5,000 things at 97 percent;
they'd rather do 3,000 things at 150 percent."

by C.J. Westerberg

One of our advisers, a NYC- based, Harvard-educated, well-known writer sent me a link to
this article with the word, "terrifying".   I sent a note back, "ever think there will be a sustainable backlash to balance this out?".  His response, "when we start seeing articles "Burned out at 30" and "Dead at 30" maybe a FEW will get the idea . . . people like busy, busy, busy - then they don't need to think . . ."

The article is from Harvard magazine and covers the frenetic, sleepless, driven, tornado-like jam-packed lives led by these students along with some of the cause and effects, such as the newish hover-craft parenting style and international competition.  It also covers the down side and ramifications of a young population who are lost without blow-by-blow structure. 

Yet one of the more interesting angles is how the intensity and perceived value of extra-curricular activities has increased, even though it has always been an important part of the Harvard culture. 

An interesting insight into the lives of some of our brightest college students with link to full story here and a few excerpts below: 

"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."

 . . ."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 (ed-note:non-governmental org) level. They were organizing international conferences. . . "

" . . . 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 . . ."

" . . .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 (ed. note: Howard Gardner - Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner '65, Ph.D. '71).   'I wouldn't have said that 40 years ago'. . ."

" . . . 'Yes, it can often be frenetic and [done] with an eye toward résumés,' says Friedrich( ed note: David Friedrich, M.T.S. '04, assistant dean), 'but learning outside the classroom through extracurricular opportunities is a vital part of the undergraduate experience here.' And extracurricular experiences may in fact be the strongest preparation for the 'real world' . . ."

 ". . . In Excellence Without a Soul, his 2006 book on the future of liberal education, Harry Lewis relates a conversation with three of his former students who had launched a highly successful Internet start-up. What in their computer-science educations had contributed to their success, Lewis wanted to know. There was an awkward silence, then one spoke up. "I really loved my computer-science education," he said, "but I could have read books and learned a lot of that on my own. The thing that was really valuable was running the Quincy House Grill." Lewis explains: "He'd had to get people to show up on time, and make sure there was enough hamburger ordered the day before--but not too much, or he'd have to waste it, and that would cut into his profit margin. He took all this stuff and combined it with his technical skills to become a very successful entrepreneur. The way social progress gets made is by learning to work together, and the real place where people can learn to cooperate is in extracurriculars. . . "

" . . . The pace of that preparation, though, can be frantic. 'People are going nonstop,' says Olivia Goldhill '11, a philosophy concentrator from England, "and there are a lot of negative implications. You don't have time to dedicate to your friends or to yourself--or to thoughts that you haven't been taught to think." Goldhill, educated at London's venerable Westminster School, where discussion and debate are the warp and weft of the school day, marvels that, at Harvard, "there are so few intellectual discussions outside of classes. I try to take at least an hour for lunch with friends. There are days, though, that even when you want to go and hang out, everyone else is in their nonstop mode. . . "

 ". . . Home life has changed in ways that would seem to undercut children's development of autonomy. There was a time when children did their own homework. Now parents routinely "help" them with assignments, making teachers wonder whose work they are really grading. Youngsters formerly played sports and games with other children on a sandlot or pickup basis, not in leagues organized, coached, and officiated by adults; kids had to learn to settle disputes over rules and calls among themselves, not by referring them to grownup zebras. Once, college applicants typically wrote their own applications, including the essays; today, an army of high-paid consultants, coaches, and editors is available to orchestrate and massage the admissions effort. . . "

This is not disconnected to a few Daily Riff stories including the "Road To Nowhere - Are We Creating A Culture Of Unprepared High-Achievers? with link here and the most recent "Have We Created A Generation Of Followers?"  with link here.

What do you think?


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Your posting is somewhat contradicting. I don't think all or mostly all Harvard undrgads are running around like a chicken without a head. Some are perhaps, but by and large a busy mind and a productive mind will take time to reflect. By definition a person as described by the above is searching for answers to life and has to stop and catch their breath and REFLECT on all the questions they present themselves. And, as to all the crutches one gives one slelf as stated above. I don't think anything has changed and I am old enough to make a reflective evaluation. Harvard is no different than the U of Colorado. You can make it as frantic as you want or you can coast. Different strokes for different folks. It all depends on what you want to do with it when you get out in the real world.

First, I have to agree with the previous comment; I'm not convinced that all the students are frenetically running around--at least I hope not. If they are, then they are spending too much time acquiring information and/or experiences and not integrating and reflecting on the information. One needs to take time to collect one's thoughts, absorb those thoughts worth absorbing and eliminate those not worth absorbing! In other words, students at Harvard or any other university should be learning to think critically and reflectively--they must be thinkers and sharers not just "doers."

Maybe this goes back to parents who feel it necessary to constantly program their children from morning till night. Parents who are always pushing their children "to do" rather than "to be" are creating individuals who cannot relax and create their own opportunities. Let's take time not only to "smell the flowers" but also to bask in their beauty!

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It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.
Albert Shanker, president of American Federation of Teachers(1974-1997), (1928-1997)

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