Director's Note: Willpower

Dr. Herman "Butch" Hill, Jr.
Cutler Scholars Director
Herman Hill

Devon Baum, Kelsey Davis, Kara Frisina, and Kit John have arrived on campus, and are sharing stories from their Outward Bound experiences in Alaska and Utah. All four obviously embraced Kurt Hahn’s rationale for the program, especially his idea of “sensible self-denial”. Kelsey particularly made me think about such willpower when she described forcing herself to eat tofu.

Willpower may be the defining characteristic of a Cutler Scholar, bridging the program’s pillars of “moral force of character” and “physical vigor”. Going back at least as far as Heather Skeeles-Shiner, cross-country has been a very popular sport for Scholars, despite its demands for perseverance. Even more common in our nominee files are coaches’ stories of “[insert Cutler-Scholar name here] is not a gifted athlete, but through hard work and determination became a star”. Of course not all the evidence of willpower comes from athletics: many have dealt with serious medical conditions and family tragedies without giving up.

Others seem to agree that this determined self-control is a reliable forecaster of personal success. I’ve been reading a new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Terney. As they describe it, self-control is a better predictor of college grades than IQ or SAT scores—and it also correlates well with good mental and physical health and with staying out of prison! Curiously, studies have shown rather convincingly that our stock of willpower is finite and can be depleted by resisting temptation.

Not coincidently, our fall-quarter colloquium topic concerns willpower, or rather a depleted state of willpower. We’re studying the U.S. national debt, through the historical lens of John Gordon’s Hamilton’s Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt. At least as Gordon sees it, our current astronomical deficit is particularly worrisome because—unlike previous large deficits—it has been run up for no good reason other than Congressional lack of will to make tough decisions.

If Gordon is right, perhaps we should encourage our Congresspersons to do an Outward Bound course; I fear that the problem cannot wait for Cutler Scholars to be elected to these offices.

Let ‘em eat tofu!