Busyness and the Soul: A Professor Writes About His Students

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, writes about his observations of his students busy lives and how their “spectacular hunger for life makes then radically vulnerable.”

A quote:
“In skating over thin ice,” Emerson says, “our safety is in our speed.” But sometimes, like it or not, we’re slowed down or stopped, and then trouble begins. Last term a young woman, an art-history and commerce major in one of my classes, stopped by my office. She’s a marvelous student; I’ve never taught anyone who could read poetry with much more subtlety and feeling. She was pale, sleepless; her teeth were chattering softly. I invited her to sit down and then asked some questions. “How many courses are you taking?” Five, no six, seven. “Audits?” Yes, one. “A thesis?” Almost done: She planned to knock out 40 pages over the weekend, but now her father, whom she clearly adored, was sick, and she’d have to go home and then how could she. …

“It’s too much,” I said. “What?” She hadn’t heard me exactly. “What you’re doing? It’s too much.” And then came — as it almost always does when I say these words, or something like them — a feeling of great relief. Someone with a claim to authority has said that it’s OK to be tired, OK to ease up. OK to rest. When my students crash on their own, they crash like helicopters dropping straight out of the sky. They’re often unaware that they’re on the verge of trouble. They’re doing what they are supposed to do, what their parents want, with all those courses and the multiple majors, and they haven’t got much of any resources to look inside and to see that matters are out of joint — no one has thought to help them acquire those.

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