The experiment of living

“The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful.

“They should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?”

– Henry David Thoreau

So what’s he implying, do you think? Students should work and study at the same time? I did that, and lots of other people do to. But there are people for whom college is 4 years of spending all their time in an artificial community where everyone is like them, and where they don’t have any normal adult responsibilities. Can you really learn how to live as a full-time, on-campus, no-job college student? I’m not sure how to answer that one, or what the alternative should be.

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2 responses

  1. Is this not the man who spent much of his life sitting by a pond? I have extreme difficulty following Thoreau’s general logic, and without knowing what he means by “living” I can’t format more than a generic response.

    From my point of view, and with my definition of living, it is possible to learn how to live as a full-time, on-campus, no-job college student. I had two campus jobs, but both were pretty cushy and lasted about a semester each. (Then again, I worked at my studies, which were in fact the primary reason for being there. So I was not like the person I met once who said his goal in college was to have fun, and he was trying to figure out the least possible expenditure of effort to get grades in the C range.)

    I learned a lot about life and interacting with other people at college, even without holding a job through all four years. I do think that it would have been helpful to have learned more about the sorts of things grown-ups have to do, like deal with insurance and whatnot, but I kind of don’t think that knowing which insurance plan to pick or how to make a will are the sorts of things that Thoreau was hoping people would learn.

  2. Good point about Thoreau sitting by a pond, but what if it means more about making your own decisions and being responsible for yourself?

    This quote isn’t pointed at any one person; not all students avoid “life” when they are studying. But I know that there are thousands of college students whose only real decisions they make are what classes to take. They aren’t responsible for anyone, they don’t pay their own bills, they eat pizza and play video games and go to class. Maybe, in Thoreau’s day, they went to class and hung out in taverns.

    Or maybe I’m getting this all wrong. Maybe he’s talking about professional scholars (for 4-10 years or for a lifetime) – people who theorize about life but don’t live it.

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