Overextended but Undercommitted

Wed, 28 May 2008 00:32:05 +0000

Anne Applebaum describes the generation of students coming of age these days as "The Busiest Generation" in her op-ed in The Washington Post today. Since one of the best parts of my job is that I get to teach and mentor members of this generation at Dartmouth, I figured I would chime in with a few observations.

First, the op-ed makes note of how competitive it is to gain acceptance to top universities. But the set of institutions with extremely low admit rates is not particularly large. (See this post from Vox Baby last year.) There are plenty of opportunities to attend fine colleges and universities without forsaking the freedom of childhood. And many of our brightest leaders come from these institutions.

Second, I have nothing against a competitive process, but I do regret that the competition takes place in the form of "more is better." More activities, more time spent on those activities, more lines on a resume. I wish the competition took place along the dimension of "better is better." Students should spend their time finding their true intellectual passions, which necessarily involves trying many different activities. But it also involves prioritizing them, committing to just a few of them, and letting the rest go.

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Third, I think that some students seek comfort in being busy, even at the expense of being effective, because they lack the confidence to make their own choices and accept the consequences. They use their multitude of activities as a way to avoid responsibility in all of them. I call this "multitasking their way to failure," and it is amazing how many bright students I see engaged in it.

Fourth, we adults have set up the competition in the wrong dimension, and so I hereby absolve all entering students of their propensity to overextend and undercommit themselves to their activities. But I expect them to do in college what they may not have had the freedom to do in high school.