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Thoughts on time and the undergraduate experience

May 6, 2022

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Alexis de Tocqueville, author of “Democracy in America,” had the insight that people living in the democratic age suffer from a paucity of time. He wrote how life “is so practical, so complicated, so agitated, so active” in “centuries of equality,” that “little time remains to them for thinking.” “Private life,” he described, “[is] so agitated, so filled with desires and work, that hardly any energy or leisure remains to each man for political life.”

As the second quotation points out, what causes this lack of time and leisure (loisir, in the French, means free or spare time), is work. The American, Tocqueville explains, “has placed in material well-being the principal goal of his existence” and is “tormented by the desire for wealth.” He concedes that “there is something marvelous in the resources of his genius and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.”

Thus, material acquisition and labor are glorified and dominate our lives, leaving time for little else. This is still the same today. An article in The Economist argues that ever since a clock was used to synchronize labor in the eighteenth century, time has been understood in relation to money, and once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. The effect of this is that people work more and that leisure time is now the stuff of myth.

How special, then, are our undergraduate years? Not yet fully exposed to the harsh world of earning money for survival and the unrelenting ticking of the clocks, we have fewer obligations and more leisure time than those in the workforce. Our only real obligation—if one can call it that—is homework and assignments. Those participating in college athletics or who have a campus job have to tend to those. What differs is that student athletes choose to compete, and students find campus jobs fulfilling and, to an extent, paradoxically conducive to an improvement in productivity.

Ruth Olujobi ’25, who works in the C-Store, says that “though there’s a limit,” work can be “very productive if it’s done in the right amount.” A similar sentiment is echoed by Zunain Husain ’25, who works as a tour guide. “If I’m studying for too long, it’s very unproductive for me. Having other things to do [i.e., campus job] and having a routine adds a bit of structure to my life and gives me a break from academics.”

All in all, our lives can be very convenient in college. We stride into the dining hall, take as much food as we want and leave our dishes to be cleaned. We have access to a state-of-the-art gym, a pool and libraries, which we can use whenever we desire and are expected to do little to help upkeep them. We have access to award-winning dormitories which we do not have to clean. The streets are plowed of snow before we rise, and various college-provided services are available should we phone the relevant number. In general, many obstacles that will emerge when we enter the workforce—the foremost being a time-consuming nine-to-five—are removed for us.

Why is it that these obstacles are removed for us? A housekeeper at Hawthorne-Longfellow Library put it best when she said she does her work of upkeeping College facilities so we students can concentrate on our work. She was responding to a student who was a senior and living off-campus who related how grateful he was for the help of housekeepers, especially now that he lived in non-College property.

In many ways the housekeeper is right.

I think “work,” in this case, can be defined as any pursuit that brings fulfillment and meaning to one’s life. Whether that is academic, artistic or beyond. It is undeniable that as undergraduates, we are living in a unique and ephemeral moment in our lives; one in which we have the special privilege of pursuing our interests in an obstacle-free way that will be increasingly difficult once we enter the workforce.

Let us, therefore, invest our time wisely and use it in ways we will not regret, whether it is through cultivating the life of the mind for some, honing athletic and artistic skills for the other or for writing newspaper articles like your humble contributor.

“But at my back I always hear,” poet Andrew Marvell writes, “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” In terms of time and the liberty we have with it, we undergraduates are in the heyday of our lives. The “salmon-falls” and “mackerel-crowded seas”—that Yeats artfully described—are beautiful but not long-lasting. Let us not allow this unique time we find ourselves in waft away purposelessly. Let us use our privileges and opportunities for the right purpose and make best use of this special and fleeting time.

Alexander Kaye is a member of the Class of 2025.

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