By Emily Lehman
As the school year picks up, the perennially polite Hillsdale student body asks one another, “How are you?” And as the semester goes on, the answer becomes more and more predictable: “Busy.”Many of us are. One of the best and worst things about Hillsdale College is the overwhelming number of good things to do. We’re a pretty committed crew and we’re proud of it. We live and breathe the honor code; perhaps even more, we live and breathe the motto. Virtus tentamine gaudet: strength rejoices in the challenge. The challenge looks like different things for different people. It might be running three or four different clubs; it might be RAing and keeping down two or three campus jobs; it might be playing three instruments and running track; it might be some amalgamation of all of the above. So we’re doing it, right? We’re rejoicing in the challenge. It’s what Hillsdale College is all about.
Or is it? What if the challenge is getting in the way?
In Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, a tongue-in-cheek book on modern parenting by Anthony Esolen [Review, The Hillsdale Forum, August 2014], there is a chapter called “Never Leave Children to Themselves,” in which he ironically recommends restricting a child’s spare time, comparing a crammed schedule with one that leaves time for relaxation and play.
How irresponsible we once were, to allow our children such huge blocks of time to be themselves, outdoors with others of their kind, inventing things to do! Think of the trouble they got themselves into. Sometimes they went fishing. Sometimes they set off firecrackers in garbage cans. . . . Sometimes they climbed trees. . . . They mapped the woods. They learned bird calls. They foraged for nuts, and mushrooms, and berries. They jumped off bridges into streams. They rode freight trains. They needed no committees. They were alive. (55, 69)
In the book, Esolen critiques modern American culture, something from which we at Hillsdale like to exempt ourselves. But perhaps we are not as free from modern cultural norms as we ordinarily imagine—perhaps the “Hillsdale bubble” is not utterly impervious to the world outside. As we commonly understand it, there is a modern tendency to see a human being as a producer, as something defined by its activity’s measurable benefits.
Maybe that’s something that we don’t always avoid. No matter how much we like to deny it, there’s something glamorous about taking more than twenty credits. I can’t help but be somewhat in awe when I find out someone works several jobs while pulling a great GPA and running a GOAL program or participates in collegiate athletics while playing in the orchestra and singing in the choir. And, every semester, there are those classes everyone wants to take: Shakespeare with Dr Smith, Dostoevsky with Dr Jackson, and pretty much anything with Dr Somerville (and that’s just the English department). Every semester we sign up for those classes and there’s a certain kind of satisfaction that comes from looking at your schedule and seeing a portrait of the person you want to become—the kind of person that takes St Thomas Aquinas and organic chemistry or symbolic logic and advanced music history. And then there’s the number—the alluring 18 or 19 or 24 credits that you can casually throw around in conversation so that people know why you’re so busy. It’s in some ways as seductive as the 4.0 or the 5-minute mile, and it’s the challenge. It’s what we’re supposed to be working for. Right? Well, maybe. It’s also a manifestation of the human temptation to define ourselves through what we accomplish.
To recall our education, the whole of a person, body and soul, can’t be summed up in a résumé, a newspaper feature, or an organization, let alone a number. And if we define ourselves that way, our hearts and minds will be devoted to things that are passing away. We’ll be locating who we are in what we do, and we’ll be driven to frenetic busyness in an attempt to define an indefinable human person through activity. The result will be a schedule that leaves nothing that we would call “free time”—time without deadlines, meetings, or a lack of sleep hanging over one’s head.
Someone might argue that there’s a place for the busy way of life. It gets things done and gives us something to show for it when we make it through this crazy ride called college. But as difficult as it is—and sometimes we make it more difficult for ourselves—it’s not the challenge.
The challenge is becoming a human person with integrity and a proper sense of one’s place in the world with relation to God and other human persons. The challenge is disciplining one’s heart to love what it ought to love and one’s mind to understand the things it ought to understand. The challenge is learning how to live, and it’s not over when we shake Dr Arnn’s hand and walk across that stage.
So perhaps it’s time that we made time, not by adding “make more time” to the to-do list, but by changing our perspective on what it looks like for strength to rejoice in the challenge. Perhaps it’s time for us to look at our schedules and ask ourselves what is helping us to grow as human beings and what is part of a personality wish list, or worse, a to-do list whose end is forgotten.
Then we might begin to fulfill the real challenge, and we might learn to rejoice. In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles says: “I hope I’ll never be so busy that I’d forego discussions such as this, conducted in the way this one is, because I find it more practical to do something else” (458c). It takes time to appreciate a sunset, to read a book that’s not for class, to stay after dinner enjoying good conversation until you’re kicked out of the cafeteria. But those might just be the things that you remember long after the credits and GPAs are of no use.
In his poem “Leisure”, W.H. Davies reminds us of what we have to lose.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
If we were aware of the temptation to define ourselves through our actions, we might take a few things off that schedule and make time for the real challenge. We might “stop and stare” and learn things that won’t go on any résumé. And we might, given enough time, rejoice.
Emily Lehman is a junior studying English and classical education.