Money, Leisure, DeathPrint
What college students should be learning about
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Three subjects that are fundamental to leading an examined life go unaddressed in the college curriculum: money, leisure, and death. All students should be required to take a single course that considers these subjects together.
Money, you will say, is already taught in college. More students than ever enroll in business programs, and economics is among the most popular academic majors. But I am speaking about money in personal and philosophical ways that these academic subjects don’t take up.
This means thinking about money in a larger context: How important is it to you, and how much of it do you need to lead the life you want? Tolstoy addresses these questions cogently in his short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” In it, a peasant farmer is told that he can own as much land as he can encircle in a day. The man sets his sights high, pushing himself to run around a very large space, and when he finishes, drops dead.
The story asks what really has value not just from day to day, but over time. When we read that most divorces have money as their cause, it makes sense for young people to scrutinize their views on this subject before they commit to another person.
Leisure connects to money, because how we spend our time depends on how much money we need. Some of my students say that they plan to work very hard at well-paying but unsatisfying jobs for a number of years to earn the money they need to retire early. Others say that they won’t mind working long, tedious hours if they get adequate vacation time—months of sacrifice for a few weeks at a grand hotel or resort. These students need to be encouraged to think about the value of an integrated life, to imagine returning from a luxury vacation to a job they hate. Or to have a job that never really allows for time off.
We all know people who, even on vacation, are continually on their smart phones, responding to messages. They have deleted leisure from their experience. Many of them aren’t happy, but feel stuck. Perhaps they should have considered more fully the kind of balance they wanted in their lives.
Understanding how certain leisure activities yield more pleasure over time might also be part of the course. Testimonials explaining why reading books gives a kind of pleasure that television-watching can’t might inspire students to think about books differently.
It is possible to learn to get pleasure from simpler things. A recent collection of essays, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness by Willard Spiegelman, expounds on seven simple pastimes: dancing, reading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writing. None of these activities costs much, and all of them (with the possible exception of dance) can be done alone and pursued into old age. Students should be encouraged to read this book and to cultivate at least a few of these simple pleasures.
But some experiences can only be pursued when young and vigorous, before strength and agility begin to wane. When my husband broke his leg a few years ago, he understood what it would be like to be enfeebled. It made him realize that the time to travel was now rather than later. Students should be encouraged to think about the stages of life—and the logic of pursuing experiences and activities, even if it means financial sacrifice, that they won’t be able to pursue when they’re older.
Death supplies the context for thinking deeply about money and leisure. I find it strange, whenever I teach a Shakespeare tragedy, to see how many students have never considered the simple fact that they will eventually die. When we read the speech from the end of Act V in Hamlet, commonsensical as it is, it can take them by surprise: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” Thinking about mortality is humbling; it opens us more fully to the richness of life when we are aware of how fleeting our time on earth is. The prospect of death can help us to see more clearly how we want to spend our lives.
One problem with college is that it is such a homogenous experience in certain ways. Many colleges offer multicultural diversity, but there is little diversity with regard to age. Beyond the classroom, where the professor exists at a remove, most students spend their time with other young people. As a result, issues students will face as they grow older are obscured. Yet college is meant to be a preparation for life as they will live it, and so these subjects are crucial to a good education. We need to think about effective ways of teaching them.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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