Work Hard, Play Hard, Enjoy Neither

Si Rutherford

Apparently, for prospective students, Middlebury is presented as a ‘work hard, play hard’ institution. We know what this means: there is a near-overwhelming amount of reading assigned every week for the majority of classes, and if students are expected to maintain a hold on their studies, they must dedicate a significant amount of time to this pursuit. When the weekend hits, therefore, students let themselves ‘play’ in an equally intense fashion in the short space of time that they are allowed. From a personal perspective, striving for real conversation in an environment that is seemingly not conducive to such a thing has helped me start to develop an understanding of Middlebury College. I want to learn something new from everyone I meet, but most importantly, I want to know whether students here are genuinely happy at Middlebury College – especially with regards to the philosophy of “work hard, play hard.”

First of all, let me say this: Middlebury students are brilliant. They are talented, intelligent, healthy, and full of potential. Unfortunately, this potential is rarely achieved, and it could be argued that the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality is to blame. A conversation I once had with a sharp-minded senior highlighted this issue. I was told how often she has heard students make incredibly insightful and remarkably intellectual comments in class, but then as soon as they leave the classroom environment they talk about lowest-common-denominator issues such as partying.

How many lunch-time conversations have been continuations of a discussion regarding the merits of existentialist philosophies, or environmental challenges? How many new friendships are forged because of stimulating dialogue about the possibilities of social change? The unfortunate fact is that there are few incentives for students to engage in extra-curricular intellectual activity; academic studies are made systematic, time-consuming and unrewarding, and students are pushed to the limit throughout the year. If a Midd Kid has 200 pages of literature coupled with two chapters of biochemistry reading to do for the next morning, it is unsurprising that little intellectual satisfaction is achieved from overcoming such a menacing obstacle. Finishing at 3:30 am only brings relief at the eventual promise of sleep, rather than deep reflections on the previously undiscovered viewpoints that the individual has absorbed. We should be able to enjoy the things we study; we should be appreciating and recognizing the things we are learning.

Middlebury College has some astonishingly sharp minds leading its faculty, so surely this valuable resource should be harnessed for all of its worth. Ultimately, my argument comes down to this: There needs to be more time for free intellectual development – for the sake of the sanity and general humanity of the young adults attending this institution. Perhaps this is just my personal opinion, but I do not think a liberal arts college, or university, or any academic institution should merely be a vehicle for turning each student into a machine.

In actual fact, Middlebury College life in general is very systematic, not only in the educational sphere, but in the social sphere as well. We party like machines when the weekend comes, maximizing the precious time we have by getting as far away from the intense work-oriented week as possible, and we do this the way we are told is best – through alcohol. Whether one supports the party scene or not, it is not difficult to understand it. Nevertheless, it is a dangerous game to be playing, sometimes involving frightening amounts of alcohol use and behavior that could not even be conceived of outside of a college campus. A Middlebury student disappeared – and if the rumors are true, drinking played a hand in the events surrounding it. But has it burst the bubble? Apparently not. We are all safe little creatures that wake and read and nap and eat and consume and forget and do it all over again.

The mechanical nature of on-campus activities can be witnessed in hobbies and interests that lie in between the realms of academic work and partying. This is most obvious within sports, but also seen in other activities such as music groups, theatre, dance, etc. It is difficult to truly enjoy the activities we have chosen to participate in when most conversations will sooner or later involve the phrase “I have so much work to do.” Every night is a consideration of what can be achieved in the hour between the gym and dinner, or before we have to begin the paper that will take us to the early hours of the morning.

Extending the arguments further, it is worth considering the ongoing discussion (largely criticism) of the dating scene on campus, and how the consensus is that it is effectively just a hook-up scene. One could argue that this is just another product of the Midd machine. In between juggling an enormous amount of reading, going to dance rehearsals, attending guest lectures, and finally making it to the Tavern party, how can we possibly fit in time for dating? So we don’t. Dating becomes just another systematized part of the social life; because Midd kids have no time to get to know one another and form the foundations for a meaningful relationship, they hook up when they are drunk on a Friday or Saturday night. Even the sex here is systematic.

Undoubtedly, this is a quintessentially American phenomenon, driven by the ideals of individualism and efficiency. These sentiments inevitably have consequences for the activities that go on within the confines of Middlebury and how the people here experience them. What is clear is that there is an obvious cause and effect on display: work hard = play hard. Of course, this is not a new revelation, but for Middlebury students it has important implications. For these talented, intelligent students, it is a virtually inescapable pattern, and one that cannot lead to a truly fulfilled college experience. It is important to understand, however, that all aspects of campus life are inexorably intertwined. We cannot criticize and wish to change the limited social scene without addressing the demanding realities of academic work. Studying has ceased to be a source of personal development, and is instead a means of achieving the ends (whether that is an A grade or a good career). Time socializing on the weekends is focused more on breaking free of the mechanical schedule, rather than embracing a meaningful and fulfilling interaction with peers. Ironically, getting drunk on a Friday night is in fact just as much part of the machinery of a Midd student as the homework, and this fact bluntly presents an issue worth taking note of: when even the partying is systematic, there is something fundamentally disturbing going on.

So we return to the initial concern: are students at Middlebury College genuinely happy? Obviously, this is not a question easily answered. I just hope that we are not merely undertaking a four year exercise in time management, and that we will emerge at the end as more than mere machines that will fit perfectly into society. We are creative, intellectual beings, and should have more time and space to develop as such. The sooner that Middlebury recognizes this fact, the sooner the College can provide future students with a more desirable and fulfilling college experience.

5 Responses to “Work Hard, Play Hard, Enjoy Neither”

  1. 1 Kathryn DiPasquale June 25, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you. Your article was so true, for me and for everyone I know. My friend Chrissy Etienne says it was different under McCardell, and that before Middlebury had a mission of getting its name out, we were the hidden jewel of the hills and kids were legitimately happy. I don’t know…. Good luck not getting chewed up in the gears, man!

  2. 2 Jeremy Martin October 27, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Nice piece – heartfelt, well-written and very thoughtful.

    First, I definitely agree that our Middkid culture centers itself around systematic behavior of the ‘study-escape’ cycle. In this spirit, I will bring up the counterpoint that eschewing such an ideology can be both refreshing and positive for those in the bubble around you. (Interestingly, you state that there is little time or energy devoted for extra-curricular intellectual activities; true, but here you are writing for an online op-ed … (which, don’t get me wrong, is truly great)).

    In short, I believe that one always has the free-will / agency to resist habits that they deem too infectious or unwanted. Unfortunately, it does take more of the ‘work hard’ ethic to swim against the current. But as is usually the case, if it’s worth it to you to change prescribed or traditional norms, you already have the power to do so.

  3. 3 Josh October 30, 2008 at 1:03 am

    Jeremy, that is a really great point about reinforcing these structures that ostensibly pervade our daily lives. I agree that those structures can become “real” in that as everyone keeps talking about them, it becomes harder to avoid them. But, as suggested by the image of the Middlebury bubble, there is a world beyond and one need not officially leave it (i.e. graduate) in order to think differently.

    In other words, keep submitting to debatable to avoid the mundane binary espoused as Middlebury’s “culture”…

  4. 4 Si Rutherford November 22, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks for the comments. I actually had no idea this was posted on the Debatable website (I wasn’t aware there even was a debatable website…), but I was incredibly pleased to find that at least one person was able to read it! And Kathryn’s first line made it all worthwhile.

    I am actually no longer at Middlebury College; I was an exchange student last year, and felt I had something of an ‘outsiders’ perspective – not that it gives my opinion any more legitimacy than a Midd Kid in it for the long haul of course. Coming to a liberal arts college in the USA from England, I found Middlebury to be something of an interesting phenomenon. I very much enjoyed writing this article.

    I appreciate the comment (Jeremy) that it is possible to resist the mechanisms of student life at the college (exemplified by our input into this e-zine). I would agree, but I think it takes a lot to achieve this goal. To ‘swim against the current’ of everyone around you takes a lot of strength, especially in a community with the closeness of MC. But at the same time, someone who is able to break free of such overwhelming norms might experience their years at Middlebury in a more disillusioned and isolated way.

    So yeah… good luck to you!

  5. 5 dan roberts November 23, 2008 at 11:50 pm


    What a fabulous followup comment. Your words are not only eloquent, but make a lot of sense to me. I find the discussion of the Middlebury “bubble” quite fascinating, for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, whenever people speak negatively about the “work hard, play hard” ethos, it surprises me because, as aggravating as it can be, I also think it’s what our school pushes and brags about. Isn’t it what makes Midd great, that our student body is comprised of people who are not only interesting and social and party and meet people and interact, but also apply themselves to a number of activities, including their required basic school work for classes, plus sports, publications, a cappella groups, or activist meetings?

    I’m not supporting the infrastructure– I agree it can be miserable sometimes wen you work so hard all wk, then on the wknd everyone is talking about some party so of course you have to go, then it seems everyone is going super hard, getting beyond drunk, then sleeping late Sat and Sun and wasting the day recovering before drinking again, and the next thing you know, Sunday night it’s back to work, furious work in the library, and Monday it’s a new week of classes. But I also think that this rigorousness has its rewards, including, among others, a great feeling of achievement at the end of four years.

    Regardless, I hope that the system didn’t make you dislike Middlebury or leave feeling glad to be gone. I hope that you were able to enjoy yourself despite the workload and the crazy drinking that goes on (hint: binging on the wknds is not specific to Middlebury College).

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