Life on Red Bull

Go up to your average Williams student. Ask what extracurricular activities he or she participates in. I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find a student who simply says, “Oh I go to (X) club meeting on occasion, but that’s it really.” What’s more likely is that such a question would provoke an exhausting laundry list of organizations, clubs and teams that said student faithfully contributes to or proactively runs.

Go up to your average Williams student. Ask how he or she is doing. Despite the variety of possible responses such a question might elicit, you’ll most usually hear something akin to “Fine,” “Busy!,” “Hangin’ in there,” “Busy. . .” or perhaps “Pretty good.” For a school that prides itself on a demographic diversity that is multi-faceted and comprehensive, why is it that we can’t come up with a wider range of ways to simply describe how we’re feeling? If I were to venture a guess, I might suggest that this emotional homogeneity is a reflection of a shared state of being – we’re actually all busy. I’m not talking about a negligible or casual kind of busy. People at this school are busy like it’s their job (and most of them are long overdue for a raise).

Any normal human being would presumably lament the dearth of free time that inevitably accompanies this type of extreme busyness. However, this is not the case at Williams. While waiting in the Snack Bar line, furiously reading my assignments for the next day’s class, I often hear my peers flexing their scheduling muscles. What start off as friendly exchanges about the ebb and flow of the day, rapidly transform into fierce competitions among groups of super-students, all vying for the admission that their day was the busiest of them all! I too have found myself party to such a discussion, and I imagine if you think hard enough, you’ve at least seen one unfold.

I’ve often stayed up nights, wondering how I came to find myself cocooned in such an environment. Of course, you could argue that the sort of people Williams attracts are simply Type A personalities, psychologically destined for a life of overachievement. Perhaps. Yet, what I think is really at the root of this culture of busyness, what defines this purple haven for the proactively extreme is pure unadulterated masochism. People here love being overworked, overburdened and overbooked. Being so busy that attaching your laptop to the elliptical machine is the only way you can justify squeezing in time to enjoy a leisurely run is masochism made manifest. Being so busy that you can’t pry yourself away from your computer in order to dedicate time and energy to eating food is masochistic. Staying up into the wee hours of the night, fueled only by the synthetic energy of a Red Bull and the nutritional value of five mozzarella sticks is certainly masochistic. Yet, all of these things are near regular occurrences in the Purple Valley.

However, what plagues me most about this reality is not the fact that I feel woefully unproductive when I glance over and the person on the elliptical next to mine is tirelessly typing away at a paper. It’s not even the less-than-healthy fried-food and caffeine binges. What’s most disturbing in my mind is the loss of oh-so-many potentially profound educational opportunities.

I can’t tell you how many times during my career at Williams I’ve heard estimable alum and 20th President of the United States James Garfield’s reflections on former College president Mark Hopkins: “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” To be sure, when Garfield made this statement, he primarily intended to sing the intellectual and academic praises of Sir Hopkins. However, I think embedded in this quote is an insightful theory of education, a pedagogical dictum that encourages us to acknowledge the unbounded educational potential imbued into every friendly conversation.

Indeed, this is the paradigmatic characterization of what liberal arts education is supposed to be, at least in my mind. Yet, somehow, we’ve managed to create an academic and social culture that is in too many ways a far cry from the log-bound repartee between intellectuals that Garfield describes. What we have instead is an institutional mode of being that mandates laboriously difficult courses and a norm of extracurricular engagement that borders on the insane.

But where did this institutional logic of intensity come from? Maybe it’s our disclaimed obsession with being number one on all fronts of comparison – academically, athletically, artistically, financially. However, to be honest, if being superlative in every conceivable fashion requires that we live in a campus culture that values tireless production over meaningful reflection, academic pedantry over intellectual growth, and extracurricular nymphomania over sincere commitment, then I would rather be ranked lower on the totem pole of elite institutions – or not at all.
If you see me in Paresky, not reading or writing or laptopping, don’t be alarmed. I’m simply in protest. You should join me and chat. Whether or not you have time.

Tony Coleman ’10 is a political science major from Germantown, Tennessee.