2012, February: Morning

The lesson is from the 30th Psalm, the fifth verse. Weeping may endure for a night,
 But joy comes in the morning.

Harvard changes people. We tend to think of the changes that happen gradually. We are proud, for example, of the intellectual growth that comes through the slow, deliberate process of liberal education.

Yet Harvard students change in one way very quickly after they arrive here. They lose the concept of morning. They stop getting up and meeting their daily obligations. Their perfect attendance records from high schools become a distant memory. They decide it’s fine to just to sleep in.

To illustrate, I will quote from a recent email exchange I had with a student.

3:03am. Mr. X to Harry. I would love to meet and talk to you in person if you are available. I am free all today … until 5 p.m.

7:08am. Harry to Mr. X. Great, come by at 11:30.

12:37pm. Mr. X to Harry. I am so sorry that I missed it! I just woke up.

Behind his apology I can imagine what he was really thinking. “Are you kidding? When I said I was free all day, I didn’t mean in the morning!”

Where did morning go? Computer guys like me may be to blame. We have long been night people. One of my PhD advisees has for years been sending me a celebratory greeting every December 9, since that is the day of the earliest Boston sunset, and therefore December 9, and not the winter solstice about two weeks later, is the shortest day of the year—for people who sleep through dawn.

In the old days computer guys were night owls because computers were scarce. They had to be shared. In college I was the bottom man on the totem pole so got the least desirable hours, 3-4am. The people who switched off with me at the hours before and after became my friends for life. Then when I started working for a living, the computer was reserved for doing actual work during the day, and people like me who were supposed to diagnose and fix problems had to do that at night.

Now of course everyone has a computer they can use any time, but the culture has stuck. Night is still when you can get long hours —for playing computer games and checking your friends’ Facebook pages. (One of my students, not the one who invented Facebook, defined a Facebook friend as “anyone you do not actively despise.”)

Back in the days when the Titans walked the earth, we used to teach and go to classes at 8 and 9am! No more. 10am is pushing your luck as a teaching hour. The only people who show up on time for early classes are athletes, who are up working out before the cold breakfast with which we now reward them.

I think we need to reclaim the hours before 10. Think of all we could do with them. Get faculty meetings behind us, for example; we don’t need students for those. Or how about teaching lotteried courses? You would get only the people who really wanted to learn, and the problem of oversubscribed courses would fix itself. Or we could all attend Morning Prayers more often! Never did anyone any harm.

Alas, I think the problem is deeper. Something else is going on of which the death of morning is only a symptom.

Night expanded and morning disappeared as virtual reality displaced actual reality.
As electronic communication and recorded lectures became the norm, we lost some of our human touch, some of our respect for the flesh and blood people with whom we deal. We are experiencing the social isolation of continuous connectivity, what Sherry Turkle calls being alone together. I suspect Mr. X was at some inchoate level figuring he could always watch the video of our meeting if he happened to miss it, just as he does with all his classes.

Few people now expect college to teach them how to grow up, and very rarely does a college act as though personal development is part of its job. But that always used to be one of the things college did for you; it taught you to be faithful to your obligations, to make choices and keep to your plans, to treat others with courtesy and to expect that you would be treated with comparable respect and humanity. These habits and modes of thought are the infrastructure of civil society, but neither colleges nor students nor parents now see them as an objective of a college education.

Yet we can and should make responsible adults out of students and not let them treat their college days as though they were crashing for four years on a friend’s couch. We should work harder to graduate people who understand that, as in Straus Cup ice hockey, showing up can be half of winning the contest.

Indeed, it may be said that we have not merely a moral but a legal obligation to help students develop into responsible citizens. Here is how John Adams wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution the responsibilities, as he put it, of “especially the university at Cambridge, …; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.” As in so many other things, he got that right.