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The Carletonian

Johnson: Don’t be a flagellant

<t some criticism last week about what I said about the Carleton safety net. I’d written a lot about how Carleton’s ridiculous workload was manageable if you had a good group of people and you did a good job commiserating about how terrible it all was – my point being that it was at least not impossible to be emotionally healthy as long as you were honest with yourself. Looking back, it does sound a little like an episode of The View.

The criticism I got made the point that taking that tack was basically treating the cause and not the symptom, that prescribing ways to deal with the workload was predicated on accepting the workload as an unalterable fact of existence, like praying for coal miners instead of raising their wages.

I tried to come up with a rebuttal to this, but I have to come clean: I basically agree with it, and I’m a little embarrassed that I was so short-sighted. So, as an apology, I’ll confront the bigger issue: why do we need to work this hard?

I realize that this is verging on heresy. It’s received knowledge that college students are overworked. Going to college, especially Carleton, means working very hard, and that’s something that we were all prepared for. It’s not military school, but Carleton is just below the University of Chicago, Cal Tech and Reed when it comes to workload, and all of us prepared for that, or something a lot like it, when we applied. We knew college was going to be a lot of work – that’s why we lost sleep in high school, why we got all As, why we directed plays or did humanitarian work in Kenya. The College Applicant has to prove that they’re up to it if they want to get into a school like Carleton, and I’d argue that the work culture goes deeper than that – somebody with the College Applicant personality type just has to be up to it, all the time, no matter what it is that they’re being up to.

Carleton students punish themselves. A few years before Carleton students are Carleton students, they’re stressed high school students biting their nails over their calc finals, and a few years after, they’re stressed surgical interns biting their nails over their first hemispherectomy. The kind of people who go through the rigorous liberal arts pipeline are the polar opposites of slackers. They itch for productivity. Leisure is like a sin. They don’t get cynical, they don’t get lazy, and to a point – the point at which they slam shut their laptops at 2 AM and say “to hell with it, the lab report’s not going to get any better” – they do their work well for the sake of doing it well. They internalize hard work and it becomes part of their personality. More than anything, they’re terrified of “snapping,” of the moment when the work becomes too much or they gain too much perspective, and they just can’t do it anymore. That way madness lies.

It’s a feedback loop – the fear of failure becomes just another motivator for us to succeed, and the more we succeed, the higher the pressure gets. At a certain point, it behooves us not just to focus on our work, but to focus on focusing on our work, to consciously keep our heads down and shut everything else out. This sounds like the end result of some kind of insidious societal plot: first they fluoridated your drinking water and now they’re making you a high-performing antisocial sociopath – it must be a conspiracy.
But I think the arms race is a better metaphor. The Russians built a bomb, so we had to build a bigger one, and then, of course, the Russians had to build an even bigger one. By the same token, jobs, first at Union Carbide, then at Enron, then at Google, started to get elusive, stratified and hierarchical, so good colleges had to ensure placement high up in the hierarchy, and that meant more rigor and more selectivity, and that meant that good high schools had to introduce AP programs, and then districts had to develop IB schools, and so on. From a very distant perspective, the whole education complex is drifting towards more rigor as the American information economy gets more developed.

So the simple answer to “why we have to work this hard” is so that we can get a job. We have to work as hard as the economy dictates we should. And that’s tautological – of course we have to get jobs. We have student loans, after all.

I’m not satisfied with that answer, though. I think we must have hit some kind of limit a long time ago – we must already have passed the point where personal discipline, idealism and dedication can make any perceptible difference in the workplace.

I think it’s another feedback loop. We have to work hard because colleges know instinctively that it’s good when students work hard, and by that logic it must be better when students work harder. And so on.
What does this mean for us? If we buy into Carleton’s story, we think that we’re working this hard so that we can become serious, independent thinkers – so what does it mean if our education is actually just making us nervous, compulsive and guilty, and it’s even not doing it for a logical reason?
We – obviously, myself included – need to realize that our workload isn’t necessarily a good investment, and that it certainly isn’t an unalterable condition of our existence, and the first step in doing that is to stop flogging ourselves.

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