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By

Chrissy DiNicola '11

On Saturdays, I wake up at noon. By this time, my roommate will have already spent three hours in the library. Weekend mornings, she has no trouble surrounding herself with the dedicated, the studious, the possibly crazy. However, the intellectually engaged student—one who pursues learning beyond what is required, for the sake of learning itself; one who does not separate academe from everyday life; one who discusses class at dinner—is hard to find.

Of course, it is impossible to assess Duke undergraduates as a whole, but I have noticed that some students who began college with a genuine interest in learning have become consumed by competition. I often see them hunched over textbooks, with cold, black coffee and pained expressions of urgency. Nothing sways their focus. They hope for law school, graduate school, or Wall Street but are distracted from their intellectual curiosity, becoming obsessed with grades.

Recently, during dinner with friends anticipating medical school, I realized the most respected people at the table were highly regarded not because they contributed interesting ideas to the conversation, but because they had shattered the curve on everyone's last organic chemistry test. Throughout the meal, people pointlessly rehashed exam questions until someone exclaimed, "Let's just not talk about class!" The anxiety caused by competing for a high GPA makes them, and many other students, associate academic life with assessment and stress. They develop an aversion to all things remotely related to school.

Pressure for academic success seems to be a major cause of the "work hard, play hard" phenomenon, which some administrators, faculty members, and students think has a dampening effect on Duke's intellectual atmosphere. The issue, officially addressed in a 1993 report "We Work Hard, We Play Hard" and later examined in a 1994 story for Duke Magazine, is neither new nor unique to Duke. In fact, a Google search of the phrase "work hard, play hard" first returns an article from The Daily Princetonian.

At Duke, it seems most people blame "playing hard" for what they consider students' academic shortcomings, but I don't think sports and the Greek system are ruining intellectual vitality. Many intellectually engaged Duke students choose to enjoy basketball and social functions. I know some who debate Foucault Monday through Friday and spend their weekends playing beer pong. Devotion to the life of the mind seems able to coexist nicely with "playing hard."

With "working hard," though, it is incompatible. My friends who think of learning as work—a task that needs to be completed so they can relax, a task that is separate from everything else they do—lose sight of the thrill that comes from learning for its own sake.

I believe students who suffer through classes they dislike to reach future goals, or spend the entirety of their time at school fighting for high marks, receive a diminished education, whatever their GPA or place on the bell curve. They refuse to let themselves stray from a certain path because they feel it will not directly relate to their chosen career, or they avoid academic exploration because they feel there is no room for academic error.

This unwillingness to take intellectual risks works against our development of curiosity, our capacity for intellectual excitement, and our understanding of our lives' potential. It confines us to the subject matter, situations, and ways of thought with which we are most comfortable, at precisely the time meant for exploration and growth.

The ChronicleDuke Magazine

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