Another change brought about by technology is that students now submit assignments electronically. This frees professors to set deadlines for assignments at midnight or 6 am. When I was a college student, students had to physically hand in papers that were due during the day or by 5 pm, the time when the departmental office closed. As a result, this drew a clear boundary between the school day and the evening. Now professors contribute to a “work around the clock” way of life by having middle-of-the-night or weekend deadlines, thereby encouraging students to work at all times. Because work can be accomplished anywhere at any time, students feel pressure to always be working. There is a blurred distinction between day and night, and sleep schedules are often erratic.
After visiting a campus and interviewing students to ask about the nature of college life for today’s students, columnist David Brooks observed,
In our conversations, I would ask the students when they got around to sleeping. One senior told me that she went to bed around two and woke up each morning at seven; she could afford that much rest because she had learned to supplement her full day of work by studying in her sleep. As she was falling asleep, she would recite a math problem or a paper topic to herself; she would them sometimes dream about it, and when she woke up, the problem might be solved. I asked several students to describe their daily schedules, and their replies sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-advisor duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer sessions, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more. One young man told me that he had to schedule appointment times for chatting with friends. I mentioned this to other groups, and usually people would volunteer that they did the same thing. “I just had an appointment with my best friend at seven this morning,” one woman said. “Or else you lose touch.”4
Though Brooks’ description is meant to be a generalization and perhaps slight comic exaggeration, it does ring true. The students I regularly meet with lead similar lives.
Living like this, it makes sense that when you ask students what they look forward to the most over their semester breaks, the most common answer is “sleep.” They push themselves hard, waiting for the time at home when they can “crash” and try to make up for the rest they have missed during classes, only to return and live the same cycle all over again. So much stress is one reason (but certainly not the only reason) that universities have documented a marked rise in the use of counseling services.5 Members of our university administration have expressed thanks to our ministry because they know that we meet regularly with students throughout each week. They recognize that with the demands for counseling increasing so much in recent years, a ministry like ours is poised on the front lines, helping the university preemptively handle the load.
With negative results like this, one would think that students would stop living without margin. But students take challenging courses and sign up for activity after activity to the point of running ragged because it seems expected. There is a strong sense that everyone is living this way and that if you do not live this way you are either missing out or will not measure up. But if you do live this way, then you will be on the pathway to success.
The story of a recent graduate illustrates this expectation. Back in 2002, our university’s alumni magazine published a cover article highlighting a remarkable young woman named Lillian Pierce, the class valedictorian for that year. The article described how Lillian’s accomplishments caused her to stand out from among her classmates and even from other valedictorians from past years. She won countless awards for being the outstanding student in her primary departments of math and science, was the first to score perfect scores on many of her tests, maintained an above 4.0 GPA, and won the prestigious Marshall and Rhodes scholarships during her Senior year. She was also hailed as one of the best violinists ever to attend the school, serving as the concertmaster for the University Orchestra and performing with professional quartets and orchestras. She made time to tutor in chemistry and math. One of her professors commented that he had never seen a student like her.
After listing these amazing accomplishments, the article goes on to describe the hard work and personal sacrifices Lillian endured to achieve so much. In the article, Lillian is admirably honest and open describing her way of life:
During her first year at Princeton, says Pierce, “I stopped sleeping. I got so tired that I couldn’t eat any more. I was too exhausted to have the motivation to eat. I lived in the infirmary for quite a while. At the same time I was having trouble being with a roommate. I realized I needed privacy if I was going to be able to work as hard as I wanted to. There was one semester sophomore year where I was staying up all night three nights a week. I really felt ill all the time. I had that much work, and I had it every week. I spent the first three years here feeling horrible, it was pretty awful actually. And my hand hurt from writing because sometimes I had to write 40 pages of math out in one night. It was painful even to keep using the pencil. It wasn’t really fun.” Despite her exhaustion, she says, when she realized that she was so close to being a good candidate for the Rhodes, “I felt like I couldn’t stop.” The moment she found out that she had indeed been chosen as a Rhodes Scholar, “I felt I hadn’t relaxed in about a decade.”6
Lillian achieved just about every academic and extracurricular award a student could achieve, but obviously at great cost. Though Lillian’s achievements are far above normal, the description of how hard she pushed herself at times is more common.
I remember being amazed when I first read this article that it seemed no one at the university, except those in the infirmary who nursed her when she became ill, counseled Lillian to change her ways. Even though most would agree that she worked too hard and should not have isolated herself from other people to accomplish her work, most nonetheless greatly admired her because of her many awards. By garnering praise and winning awards, Lillian became exalted as an example of achievement for others to emulate. It is no wonder then that students feel pressure to push themselves so hard to achieve.
At this point, we should ask how this culture of overwork has developed. David Brooks writes that students believe “all of the experiences of college life are a step on the continual stairway of advancement, and they are always aware that they must get to the next step (law school, medical school, whatever) so that they can progress up the steps after that.”7 Brooks argues that today’s college students have been trained to become professional résumé builders. Higher education, says Brooks, is no longer focused on students’ character development or the pursuit of moral wisdom needed to serve society. Instead, it has become a checkpoint to pass through on the way to the ultimate destination of a certain type of job.
Though most students pursue their various interests in part because they genuinely enjoy them, I would agree with Brooks that few seem to do what they do purely for the joy of it. Students think in terms of how their interests help them stand out from others and how their interests will help future employers notice them. And in our culture today, living like this does not begin in college. Students are trained to think of their lives in terms of the résumé they are building much earlier, in junior high and especially high school. The main thing that changes in college is that the lifestyle intensifies as there is more time to fill, often without the boundaries of family life and a parent telling you to go to bed.
Making adolescence (and for some, earlier childhood) a time to begin résumé-building for the future has developed in our society because “admission to a brand-name college is viewed by many parents, and their children, as holding the best promise of professional success and economic well-being in an increasingly competitive world.”8 Because of this viewpoint, the numbers of students applying to colleges all over the country has greatly increased. And getting into a college has become more and more competitive.