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Better than the average student

September 11, 2011


This chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been getting a fair amount of attention recently.   It seems to suggest that the average student is not much of a student – she spends more time on “leisure and sports” than “educational activities.”  Indeed, it seems likely that many readers of this blog – including those who are long past their undergraduate days, spend more time in their own educational activities (reading, attending lectures, going to museums, etc.) than the hypothetical “average student” does on her weekday.

But I do not quite buy the widely made cynical conclusions about this chart  Besides the obvious point (that this survey appears to also include activities students are involved during the summer break), the notion of averaging over all full-time students seems a bit of misdirection.  This time of wide averaging gives much more weight to the time spent by a student at a two-year junior college than a student at a research university.  In fact, I suspect that a wide swathe of students take full advantage of their time in college to fully immerse themselves in the life of the mind.

And I don’t think it stops with graduation.  Many people care about intellectual issues.  For example, I suspect most people reading this blog post fall into that category.  Someone is buying W. G. Sebald books, attending Shakespeare performances, listening to Mahler, writing poetry.  And even wide group of people spend at least some of their time watching documentaries on PBS or listening to NPR or attending book clubs or checking books out of libraries.

It is not just secular humanists who are engaged in lifelong study.  In many religious traditions, study is a central aspect of religion.  This is certainly true in traditional Judaism (think of all the people who set aside two to three hours each day to follow the daily program of “Daf Yomi” Talmud study), of many forms of Buddhism, of Evangelicals and other Protestants who daily devote an hour to Bible study, of Catholics who devote themselves to scholarship (just consider all of those Jesuit schools – perhaps they are in part motivated by the quote attributed to Francis Xavier, “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man” – but I notice that the Jesuits also educate those over seven!)

But the chart does hint at many bitter conclusions:  clearly the ideal of being able to devote four years to uninterrupted study and intellectual adventure has long been replaced by the necessity of having to work while in college – working 15 hours during the weekday week (and likely more on weekends) on average.  Students are also often not able to live in their college community – they spend more time commuting (traveling) than they do eating.  Hard economic realities and societal expectations only rarely allow young people to achieve the ideal of college years that we collectively hope for:  contrary to popular imagination, we do not give college students an uninterrupted stretch of time to devote themselves to study.

It is fun to look at a chart like this and imagine some hypothetical college student who spends her time partying.  But what this chart really shows is that our hypothetical college student is forced by economic circumstances to make compromises.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 11, 2011 6:21 pm

    How timely: my daughter away from home pursuing an undergraduate degree — and working two jobs to make that work — just posted on Facebook, “The Journals of Sylvia Plath is distracting me from real college studying and oh yeah, laundry . . .”

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