Xavier Flory | The Price of Engagement
The Gadfly | Why we should spend more time studying and less time doing extracurriculars
September 8, 2013, 3:21 pm · Updated September 8, 2013, 11:12 pm·
Thoughtful — it’s not an adjective I associate with Penn.
Since the prize was first awarded in 1901, an unrivaled 61 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to former undergraduates of the University of Cambridge. Former Penn undergrads have won three.
Both universities admit very bright students, and both have plenty of Nobel Prize winners in their faculty or doing research for them, and yet Cambridge seems to do a better job developing the minds of their students.
After spending the summer in Cambridge, I see what the difference is: Cambridge students have more time to think, while we act more. Situated in an idyllic Gothic town in rural England, Cambridge lends itself to isolation from the broader world and pure intellectual endeavors, whereas it’s hard to forget the world’s problems when you live in West Philadelphia.
As you walk through the courtyards of Pembroke College, Cambridge, you’ll probably see two old professors bowling on one of the lawns. On the benches nearby, students share a pint of beer from the college cafe, and others lounge on the grass enjoying the rare sun. It’s summer after all, but even during term, Cambridge places a great emphasis on informal learning and down time.
Every night during term, Pembroke College has something called Formal Hall, where students and fellows of the college can get dressed up and enjoy each other’s company over a three-course meal. Students are encouraged to mull over their ideas, and have the time to do so. They are expected to keep on working throughout the holidays between terms, and thus they never really stop thinking about what they are studying.
In the hectic world of Penn, however, academics are often just another competing time commitment. Anyone who walked down Locust Walk last week during the activities fair saw how engaged Penn students are in clubs, causes and teams. People often spend as much time in meetings as they do in the classroom. It’s impressive that people can juggle so many responsibilities, but ultimately these activities distract from our primary responsibility: learning.
Penn students do study a lot, but we probably don’t think enough. Readings that aren’t essential to getting an A are often ignored, and people are more strategic than curious when choosing courses. When I asked one of my advisees — a freshman — why he was interested in the PPE major, he responded, “Because it sounds pre-professional.”
We engage the wider community in many ways, from tutoring in West Philadelphia schools to assisting in high-level research to creating companies. The immediate impact and use of many of these ventures is unquestionable, but they rarely maximize our own development.
And yet, intellectual and personal growth should be our priority in school. The greatest tools we bring to any venture are our minds, so we should focus on exercising it beyond the busywork of organizing events, chairing meetings and socializing. As Schopenhauer points out, even reading the best books is merely tracing the intellectual steps of another. The mind needs time to digest and then transform material in new ways. To step off the worn path, we need to think, wonder and write on our own, outside of class and beyond our homework.
We’ll most likely never again have this much time exclusively for ourselves. Some of us work, but very few of us have to make full-time wages. We don’t have to cook if we can stomach Commons, and virtually none of us have any dependents.
The ivory tower is often derided for how elitist and out of touch it is, but isolation from the world is a good and necessary thing. Nobody questions the scientist’s need to lock herself up in a laboratory, but we should recognize that we also need these four years in the ivory tower to develop and let our ideas wander and crystallize.
Study more, think more, do less. We should leave college not tired and full of experience, but rather eager and full of ideas. The practical skills you learn in the IAA or the Penn finance clubs can be learned at your first job.
As Emerson says, “the ancestor of every action is a thought.” Let’s engage and develop our own minds before we try to change the world.
Xavier Flory is a College senior from Nokesville, Va. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @FloryXavier. “The Gadfly” appears every other Monday.