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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

The Busy-ness School

May-June 2006

“Is there no onein this House who plays basketball?” the e-mail reads.

I feel a twinge of guilt. I signed up to play intramural basketball for Quincy House at the beginning of the season, but have not been to a single game. Worse, I am one of the intramural (IM) representatives. I’m supposed to be organizing these games, rallying Quincy House to take on Lowell, or Cabot. If anyone shows up for a game, it should be me. Though basketball is not my favorite sport and (speaking politely) I’m unskilled, this is the under-six-foot league. It’s the one place in the world where I’ll admit my height of five-foot-eleven-and-three-quarters instead of claiming an extra quarter-inch—I’ve found that basketball is more fun when you can loom over the other players.

“We usually play with only four,” the team captain continues, “But this e-mail list has, like, 30 people on it.” The pattern is all too common. It seems everyone is interested in intramural sports, but only in the abstract. When I approach a pack of sophomores for a table-tennis tournament, their sweeping claims about how much they love Ping-Pong rapidly transition into backpedaling questions about the dates and the time commitment, and mumblings about not really being very good at it.

“You don’t have to be good,” I doggedly explain, “You just have to be there.”

I take my own advice, and go to the basketball game.

Walking the icy brick path past the front of Lowell House to the Malkin Athletic Center with the air crisp and cold on the bare kneecaps below our gym shorts, we worry, tonight as ever, not about the quality of our team or opponents, but about the quantity of our players.

“Anyone else coming?” the captain asks.

“Jack’s meeting us there,” I answer, watching the steam of my breath rise and dissolve into the stars.

“I’ll call Dave.”

I wonder where everyone is, not only tonight, but every night. What are people doing that has them so wrapped up that they cannot spend an occasional hour with their Housemates, vanquishing some less worthy House?

“Work” is the generic response, a totally inscrutable answer that deters further inquiry. It calls up the common struggle of all Harvard students against that implacable foe. Homework, it implies: the monumental burdens of reading, writing, and calculating. There is always work to do, with the papers flowing across my desk like an endless stream cascading down from the mountains of unread books piled high around my chair. At times it occurs to me to envy Sisyphus for his lack of deadlines.

Citing “work” as an excuse from intramurals conjures up an image of the studious genius, bent over books in the light of one lamp. It’s an effective riposte, because it tosses the question back at the questioner: Don’t you have work to do? Aren’t you a model student, just like me?

I’ve learned to listen not to the answer, but the tone. When the word cracks out sharply, a brusque, determined snap, there is no hope for persuasion, so I let the issue drop. The sound I seek is the telltale tinge of regret, the tiny resigned sigh.

“By ‘work,’ do you mean, ‘the Internet’?” I ask. “Updating your Facebook profile, perhaps?” A rueful grin undermines any claim of diligence with a guilty acknowledgment of past and future procrastination. Now a true consideration of alternatives begins, as the lure of the basketball court fights the impulse to sit tethered to a desk, where we can reassure ourselves that, although we are not working just yet, we’re on the verge of starting.

I do not doubt that some proportion of the College does sit tirelessly toiling at homework night and day, but I have sat through too many silent hours in section to believe that all or even most of us are as studious as we claim. At times, I am tempted to rise up in outrage at these classmates who have not prepared for discussion. This happens most frequently when I want someone else to speak up with the answers I do not know because I, too, have only skimmed the assignment. I am likewise vexed by my fellow undergraduates’ combination of categorical support and aversion to participation each time I seek to interest them in intramurals or political campaigns, in squash games or divestment from Sudan. Then I realize that I have not been to a basketball game—varsity or intramural—all year.

I am not the only one who reaches out for support that isn’t there. The sports teams complain about the empty bleachers, the a cappella groups beg for audiences, and so many individuals have an event to sell that it can be dangerous to broach this topic conversationally. A friend nodded vigorously when I mentioned the bewildering busy-ness that everyone claims. She knew exactly what I meant. She was running psychology studies that paid undergraduates five dollars for 20 minutes of their time, but students participate only grudgingly.

 “I feel like I’m selling insurance,” she sighed.

The next day, I got an e-mail inviting me to participate in her study, held in William James. Scrolling through the list of available times, I realized that I had a scheduled conflict—a job, a lecture, a job, a meeting, a section—in all but two slots. The first of these I had set aside for lunch—not the extended, lazy, dining-hall lunch with friends and a second helping of cookies, but the tense, rushed fly-by meal, snatched in prepackaged plastic wrap from the student lounge under Annenberg Hall. From Annenberg to the white heights of William James would be a small divergence from my habitual trajectory, yet I was unwilling to forgo my cramming (food into mouth, Hobbes into head) to make the trip.

I realized that my friend and I had misstated the question at hand—it’s not why people are too busy. The question is why people are too busy to do the things I do. To me, it is entirely incomprehensible that any large number of people would set aside 60 minutes to watch The OC, yet balk at an hour of organized dodgeball. The OC mix of suntans and melodrama falls very low on my list of priorities, but I suppose its fans don’t see much point in bombarding one another with heavy foam spheroids. Even where the actions in question are more weighty—say, skipping class or homework for a political campaign—I can see that personal preferences would rank school assignments before political action. On close examination, I can understand the choice to watch TV instead of play IM sports, or read instead of rally.

Yet this was not always so.

I have been reading through old accounts of efforts to persuade Harvard to divest from companies doing business in South Africa—a 1978 Crimson headline reads “More Than 1000 Rally Against Apartheid.” Three days later: “3500 students—more than half the undergraduate population—took part in a torch- and candlelight procession.” I can hardly imagine a rally of this magnitude today. What could possibly motivate so many students? I was impressed when divestment from firms in Sudan brought 300 students to a rally last year. What is so different about today, I wonder, that 300 appear in place of 1,000 or 3,500?

My initial reaction was a mental shrug: “Well, it was 1978.” My friends do the same: “Of course there were protests. It was 1978.” But though reasons abound for why students in 1978 might have felt intracollegiate or international causes affected them personally, I am unsatisfied with accepting the era alone as a sweeping explanation.

Neither intramural sports nor divestment movements hold the attention of today’s undergraduates. I doubt that there is more homework now than there was in 1978, or that today’s students do a higher percentage of it. Possibly there are more opportunities on campus, drawing students one way or another. Studying abroad has become easier, and about 100 student groups have been formed since 2003. Increasing the number of student groups without increasing the number of students makes a greater demand on undergraduate time. Yet this begs the question—if more groups are the cause of declining attendance, then why do new groups continue to crop up?

The plethora of opportunities still does not explain why each of us is so busy; opportunity does not mean action. Simply to state that we could be more scheduled and more busy than ever does not explain the choice. My daily agenda is not divinely predetermined—no administrator pulled me aside to lecture me on the importance of keeping Thursdays fully booked. For one reason or another, I have picked each of these classes, jobs, and extracurricular activities, as my classmates have picked theirs.

 I think that the difference lies somewhere in the composition of these choices. Somehow, the overarching sense of the summum bonum has shifted, so that today “work” is excuse enough to evade the pressure of our peers for whatever activity they advocate. We understand and accept that an unspecified individual endeavor supersedes a voluntary collective effort. Frustrated though we may be over the failure of our peers to follow where we lead, we will tenaciously defend each precious hour of our own day from usurpation by an outside force.

My hours are my own, it would seem, to use or to squander. I am free to do whatever I want, unless I want to play on a basketball team. I can’t do that, because our team has no players. As a consequence, we players have no team.

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