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Four Hours

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by Rishona Zimring, Associate Professor of English

A few months ago, a quantity of time reached out and grabbed the American consciousness by the throat. “Four hours” loomed large in the anxious minds of millions. A mild panic swept the nation. “Four hours”: too long. What do we do for hours, for hours and hours, for hours on end?

Four hours is the amount of time Amy Chua, aka the Tiger Mother, demands her children practice the piano every day, a symbol of rigorous parenting that throws into relief the underwhelming 30 minutes a day of piano practice demanded by the typical American parent. The commentary on this raw comparison— 4 hours versus 30 minutes—has been epic. Innumerable articles, reviews, radio and television interviews, blogs, letters, and reader replies later, we have had an occasion for a national, indeed international, conversation about everything from female narcissism to America’s decline as a superpower. But somehow the raw numbers in all their publicizable simplicity will not go away.

On this occasion, I want to think with you about what we do with time, and how we speak about it; what we do when we have time on our hands, how we fritter it away, how we waste time, kill time, steal time, and simply take time; how some things are a matter of time.

The more I thought about the power of the quantity, four hours, the more I felt myself exploring the parameters of my professional world, the world of higher education. I began to think that all this panic over one mother’s demand that her daughter practice piano for four hours a day is not unlike the panic about a liberal arts education. The battle cry of “four hours” produced a powerful volley of opposition: but her kids must not be happy; it only works because the father takes them to amusement parks; that kind of pressure is why we have such stressed-out teens; what about the money, status, and privilege it takes to play piano four hours a day? It sounded a lot like the attack on a liberal arts education: too much money, too much time, too much pressure, and too irrelevant. Isn’t playing piano four hours a day a little like spending 4 of your 36 credits on a poetry course that teaches you to write sonnets, or a quarter of your college career on a useless major like philosophy? Why spend four hours a day practicing piano, reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or studying Descartes?

We live in a culture of abundant leisure and entertainment, where machines do a lot of work for us and where many ordinary elements of life are kept at safe distances or are hidden. You are curious, and you come to Lewis & Clark to broaden your horizons, and because somewhere inside you, you have decided to resist the seductions of easy amusement. In college, you are routinely given four hours, and told to shape it yourselves. In my class, I will see you for three hours a week, and I will expect you to work four hours a day, on your own, reading and writing. This is not easy, but if you came here because you were curious, and because you wanted to think, then you came here not just to acquire information, but also to evaluate it, and that takes time. You came here not just to be exposed to different points of view, past and present, but to debate the merits of different arguments, and that, too, takes time. You came here to appreciate and make music and art, to conduct experiments, to solve complex calculus problems, to deconstruct advertising images, to untangle gender inequalities, to find out the key dates in the history of imperial China, to acquire an expertise in the contemporary Japanese novel. All of these take time.

Have you wasted your time? Have you practiced for hours? Have you killed time, frittered it away? Have you stolen time? Have you taken time?

Many of you are about to embark on a time-honored tradition: you are about to take time off. This is what I did when I graduated from college. I moved back to Chicago and lived with my parents, audited classes at the local university, and worked two part-time jobs. During the fall, I filled out applications to graduate school, and during that year, I made many acquaintances and accepted many invitations to parties. My parents looked on skeptically. They pushed me out the door and firmly closed it; they said to me, “It’s time to go.”

When you hear someone say “it’s time,” perhaps you feel a little melancholy. To be told “it’s time” is to be told that something—the thing you’ve been doing for hours and don’t want to stop—is ending. The words “it’s time” make you feel a tinge of suffering, or a surge of grief; you feel elegiac, mournful that something or someone or some time has passed away. You are suddenly exposed and vulnerable.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, a wife says to a husband, “It is time,” and this is how Woolf imagines his thoughts on hearing these words: “The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time.” When the speaker says “it’s time,” the listener stops; he thinks; he creates; time is not an emptiness which must be filled, but a fullness that overflows and immerses us in its expansive possibilities.

Woolf was very interested in pauses, like other modernist writers who stopped to observe and understand the culture of modernity, with its dedication to speed and schedules. Woolf’s novel asks us to pay attention to what happens slowly over the course of seconds and minutes, as in this passage: “As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London: and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing.” In pausing, Woolf says, we can expose for a moment the skeleton of habit, that ordinarily invisible structure upon which hangs the flesh of our consciousness. Only by exposing it can we see that there is nothing there—that we need not depend on our habits, that indeed we can change them. Woolf embraced both slowness and silence as the capacity to hear anew—to hear for example that flapping of time on the mast—and thus to make us stop: to take time off.

Woolf’s friend the poet T.S. Eliot also had something to say about time, repeating the word “time” 8 times in 12 lines in the middle of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet …
Time for you and time for me,
And time for yet a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

This is the experience of modern times veering dangerously close to boredom, that affliction of too muchness; too much time on one’s hands. Eliot’s incantatory repetition of the word “time” is symptomatic of the fear of paralysis when time has ceased to matter and one has surrendered to pure habit. Implicit here is a longing for the opposite: for not having enough time, for a feeling of urgency and excitement and action.

And that is the feeling that dominates my experience of teaching at a liberal arts college. There is seldom enough time. We begin a discussion of one chapter of Ulysses; an hour goes by but feels like a minute, and I realize my students’ quizzical looks relate to my own incomprehension that the class hour is over. And then you are gone.

My hope for you is that you will take time off and practice four hours. Practice for hours. Feel nostalgic for four years that will seem like four minutes and that will dissolve into something unquantifiable and timeless. I am gently pushing you out the door and telling you: it is time.

These remarks were excerpted from Zimring’s address at Baccalaureate on May 7.

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