The importance of being happy

22 January 2015

Today I was lumped with Lent Term’s first load of work. In the next week, I’ll be expected to grasp the political background of the French revolution, delve into the depths of paratextual criticism with reference to early Romantic poetry and attempt to understand the cultural significance of the newspaper’s rise to prominence in the eighteenth century.

Somehow I got into this University, and somehow I’m still here in spite of dangerous indifference to Tripos, but it’s safe to say I wasn’t cut out for this. University, and the University of Cambridge in particular, demands a very particular kind of mind, and suits a very particular kind of individual. It’s not just about ‘academic potential, motivation and suitability for your chosen course’, as the University’s admissions website would have us believe. You need to be obsessed – in a phenomenal, enviable, and downright scary way – with your subject.

The fundamental fact is that it’s not for everyone, but if you’re someone with a certain level of aspiration seeking work in certain job sectors, there isn’t much choice.

The University of Cambridge supposedly produces the world’s most employable graduates. Personally, that fact has driven my own decision to stay, in spite of the fact that attitudes to academic work have become increasingly frustrating.

In basic terms, for many of us the only way to get through the slog of Cambridge’s academic fanatacism is to turn to other sides of life. There’s a reason we’re famous for the ‘other things’ you can do with your time at Cambridge.

If keeping yourself happy and sane in spite of your degree means getting up at 5 a.m. six days a week to trial for the University Boat Race, or spending 40 hours a week in an office with neglible windows to produce a newspaper, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll end up behind on work.

This is rendered all the more problematic when your workload demands around 60 hours of work a week (according to a former supervisor of mine) to be done ‘properly’. With this in mind, the ‘unnecessary pressure’ we reported last week seems unsurprising. The reading week campaign that is central to this week’s front page story is further evidence that this problem is becoming widely recognised.

The question this raises, and the one we pose in this week’s debate, is whether we should ‘lie’ to applicants to raise aspirations and encourage those ‘non-traditional’ applications, or simply tell it like it is. Do ‘Cambridge hopefuls’ really know what they’re letting themselves in for?

The trick is to convince our academics that there are those in the world for whom intimate and introspective study of a subject for its own sake is not supremely fascinating. They need to understand that giving students space to thrive in their extracurricular activities will produce more interesting, engaged, and world-ready graduates.

They may not be as high-achieving, but they’ll be happy. To the horror of those who regularly use phrases like ‘academic rigour’ and ‘intellectual scrutiny’ with no hint of irony, I’m going to put myself out there, and say I know what’s more important.