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Boredom, Ambition at All-Time High

By Noah I. Dauber

A recent poll, commissioned by the American Council on Education and conducted by researchers at UCLA, claims that our classmates, the nation's college first-years, are a strange mix of boredom and ambition. While the polls central focus is the students' attitudes towards their schooling, the wording of the questions makes grander conclusions about the spiritual and intellectual state of college students. Reading of the poll in The New York Times, we are likely to get the impression that our classmates are bored not merely with their classes, but with life, and that they are single-mindedly focused on getting rich quick.

This conclusion is both simplistic and unjust. It mistakes an indifference and impatience for tedious classwork with a spiritual malaise and selfish inwardness. These are two very distinct kinds of boredom--and they have very different implications. The first, the indifference, is a particular dissatisfaction, the outward sign that one's mind and one's priorities are elsewhere, for better or worse. The second type of boredom is a sickness. It is totalizing, spiritual and philosophical. College first-years these days are bored in the first sense only; they do not have their minds on their work because they are concerned with their futures, with their social lives and with their families to-be.

The numbers, listed in Monday's article, sound pretty conclusive. In the poll of nearly 350,000 first-years at 665 colleges nationwide, 74.5 percent chose to be very well off financially as their essential educational goal. This is, not surprisingly, a major change from the 1960s. Polled in 1968, a whopping 82.5 percent of college first-years selected developing a meaningful philosophy of life as their essential educational goal.

While boredom is not as widespread a phenomenon, it is at an all-time high. The number of respondents sleeping through class surged to a record high (34.5 percent), as many others reported being bored with those classes they managed to get to as well (36 percent). These first-years rarely discuss politics, do not think that keeping up with the news is important, and are less interested in racial and environmental issues than their predecessors.

What are we to make of these findings? Are they symptomatic of a pervasive boredom and selfishness? The social scientists cited have little to offer in the way of serious explanation. Assuming these results are linked to broad social causes, but finding none, they blame television, as usual. The argument, which we have heard again and again, is that television, with all its advertising and flashy imagery, has made us materialistic while simultaneously whittling down our attention spans.

All of us know that this is an inadequate explanation. We all know that there is good television and bad television, just as there are good and bad books, or good and bad social science. Blaming television for all of our social problems is irresponsible, lazy and just plain wrong.

Part of the problem with this explanation is that it takes aim at the wrong sort of boredom and ambition. The results of the poll make the college first-year into an existential reincarnation of the company man. He is committed to working for a good living, but he is bored with life, refusing to study its ins and outs.

This is an empty characterization. College first-years are ambitious not at the expense of a philosophy of life, but because they have settled on a philosophy of life before they arrived at college. They are committed to making a good living because they are invested in their futures and their future families. As the poll taken by the Harvard Independent last spring indicates, even the majority of high minded Harvard students are stuck on the goal of providing for a comfortable suburban family lifestyle.

Who is to blame for the students impatience and boredom? On the one hand, we cannot fault colleges for being committed to abstract learning. On the other hand, we cannot blame students for knowing that there is more to life than what is being taught in college classrooms. It is even harder to blame them if their parents, the college students of the 60s, managed to communicate these values to them. The particular boredom and family-oriented ambition of today's college students is a quieter and more relaxed version of 60s discontent with book-learning. It would be a mistake to interpret the results of the poll as a crass materialism or existential boredom. Who can blame college first-years for knowing what they want out of life?

Noah I. Dauber '98 will resume his column next semester.

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