As I drifted in and out of sleep one Sunday morning, I had a nightmare in which I accidentally slept through all my classes the day a term paper was due. Thought after panicked thought darted through my mind: the excuse I’d have to forge to my TA for turning in a late paper, the irrevocable penalty I’d receive for the anthropology quiz I missed, the French participation grade I forfeited and the number of weeks it would take me to get over just one day’s worth of irresponsibility-induced shame.
The extent to which my academic pursuits are driven by fear is exemplified by my near-perpetual subconscious anxiety. It seems no amounts of attempted distancing — mental or physical — can adequately help me relax enough to tackle schoolwork as if it weren’t the universe’s most pressing force imaginable.
Once upon a time, enriching oneself in a liberal arts education was more than just this. It was about becoming a well-rounded individual, and not just about engaging in a cutthroat internal battle against inescapable apprehension — just for the short-term satisfaction of earning a respectable letter grade.
To put this into perspective, take Milton Wylie Humphreys, namesake of Humphreys dorm and the epitome of the “liberally-educated man.” Not only was he a professor of Greek at the University for 25 years, he also taught an impressive breadth of classes in Hebrew, botany, mathematics, English, modern languages and physics.
To Humphreys, learning about a wide variety of subjects through a liberal arts education was clearly more than just earning a grade on a transcript or a finding a shortcut to fulfill a requirement. It was about becoming fully enriched in a diverse range of knowledge, with the ultimate purpose of passing on this knowledge and otherwise developing into a dynamic person. Instead of being driven by fear, he was driven by a genuine passion for learning.
The truth is, I can’t say I’ve thought of a solution which would change the mentality of the typical University student. Grades matter because the surplus of intellect here makes it hard just to stay afloat.
There’s more at stake nowadays, too. With an ever-increasing student body size and soaring unemployment rates comes an inevitable survival-of-the-fittest mentality. We strive to survive rather than to actually live.
But sometimes I wonder if fear is truly inevitable — if somehow, through a shift of focus, we could be driven by something more productive.
Being a student at such a prestigious institution leads us to hold high standards for ourselves, striving for perfection and resenting anything less than what we feel we’re capable of. In the midst of highlighting what we’ve done wrong, we tend to forget about the things we’ve actually done right.
I never really look back on the hard work I slog through and commend myself for how much I have developed intellectually as a result of it. In constantly racing toward the finish line, I have an irrational fear of turning around to appreciate my progress, feeling it would only slow me down and cause me to ignore the obstacles in front of me.
The only way I’ll ever get my money’s worth out of my education, though, is if I take a second to reflect on what I’ve learned and accomplished here. And just maybe, in light of seeing the positives, I’ll be more inclined to find motivation through my strengths rather than through my fears.
Vega’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.