Working on the Degree
Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge tastes best when you’ve sweated to pick it.
By John Maas
When I left Paris after a quarter of study abroad, I brought back the usual suitcase full of European clothes, chocolates and bubble-wrapped bottles of wine. I also brought back a less pleasant souvenir: a strong sense of guilt. I had taken advantage of all that France offered—and, as a result, springtime in Paris hadn’t felt like school at all. When I realized how little time I had spent doing homework, I suddenly had plenty of time to feel academic remorse.
Paris or not, this was nothing new. I had always struggled with similar guilt: guilt that I wasn’t working hard enough, guilt that my humanities coursework wasn’t preparing me for the salaried world, guilt that I was squandering Stanford’s academic opportunities. It wasn’t just me. We Stanford students are a guilty bunch, and I had rarely had a conversation with friends that didn’t involve someone moaning, “I haven’t gotten anything done,” or “I’ve been so unproductive!” We always nodded in agreement, commiserating without really considering whether our apologies were justified.
My anxiety peaked at the end of junior year. It sank in that I wasn’t doing honors, I wasn’t minoring in anything, my major measured in at a lightweight 65 units and I had just spent months browsing the boulangeries instead of the bibliothèque. I needed to find something to temper my sense of sloth.
I found my solace in physical labor. I worked all summer with the campus community gardens project, tending a little plot of land near Lag Dining. I planted seeds, watered tomatoes, wiped the sweat from my brow. Each night I came home and scrubbed my hands, watching the dirt wash away, thinking that this, this was work.
Senior year, I lived in Columbae. Co-ops pride themselves on physical labor and self-reliance, so I scrubbed pans and unclogged sinks and helped care for our house garden. The chores were satisfying, as were the simple, unambiguous results they produced. Drains either work or they don’t; whenever my plunger fixed one, it meant I had done my job well.
This attitude toward fulfillment colored my last year at Stanford. The only drawback was, my path to fulfillment on the Farm wasn’t supposed to include physical labor. Yes, Jane and Leland founded the University to produce students well-suited for “some useful pursuit,” but students are supposed to find that pursuit in the library or laboratory, not the fields or workshop. Even the art department here lacks potter’s wheels. Stanford is about learning with our minds, not with our hands.
In my last quarter at Stanford, then, I tried to reconcile my budding farmhand with my inner intellectual. I deliberated over the Bulletin and chose a course on Paradise Lost to round out my English major. Even with his visions of Eden, plowing through Milton’s dense verse was hardly as pleasant as caring for the glossy tomatoes and sweet-smelling compost of my summer. Difficulties aside, though, I began to recover the satisfaction that comes from intellectual rigor. I walked with Adam and Eve through their garden, trying to understand them as we moved closer and closer to leaving Paradise. Grafting together the layers of their characterization was hard work, even if it didn’t dirty my nails.
When God casts him out of the garden, Adam faces a life of physical labor as punishment for the Fall. With optimism, however, he asks, “What harm? My labor will sustain me.” Whether my own labor can sustain me outside the sandstone gates of Eden remains to be seen, but at least I’m prepared for a better balance between the intellectual and the physical. I certainly won’t give up gardening or my other chores. Not when I’ve finally learned that when I spend all morning weeding the garden, I should grab Paradise Lost and head back out to read all afternoon on the bench by the oregano. On days like that, there’s just no time for guilt.
JOHN MAAS, ’08, from Dousman, Wis., is Stanford's research intern.
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