Yes, Virginia. There is such a thing as a Stupid Question

Originally posted on 11/3/2002.

I knew that when I returned to the classroom I was going to be subjected to all the familiar stupid student questions, but even I wasn’t prepared for this: “If I don’t turn in my paper, will I still get credit for it?” While many students have asked similar questions in class, this was the first time I had ever gotten it so blatant and overt. And so insane.

Now, usually when I have told people this story I get one of two reactions, both of which are completely rational and logical as well as flat-out wrong. What they don’t realize is that the truth – the bigger picture – is far more insidious and serious.

The Joke is Not The Question

The first question that people ask me is, “Are you sure she wasn’t simply joking?” After all, they reason, such a question is so ridiculous on its face that surely no college student could possibly be serious. Even when I tell them that no, the student was deadly serious in her question, they have a hard time believing that I am not exaggerating for effect.

The second question that I get is the most common: “Is she really that stupid?” The quick answer is that yes, well, she is that stupid, though not for the apparently obvious reasons. She certainly has absolutely no clue with regards to her audience (both myself and the class members around her). Moreover, given that she asked the question nearly 10 weeks into the semester after already had several assignments handed in, she should have certainly known what the response would be (assuming that it would have been any different in any of her other classes).

The long answer, however, is, “No, she’s not stupid,” because she actually had a rationale behind the question, and this is what makes her question so dangerous.

In her mind, as in the minds of a striking number of college students (though whether it’s more or less than previous years I’ve been too close to the teaching profession to clearly ascertain), the question is rooted in a bizarre redefinition of what constitutes reasonable expectations. In short, she believed that she should still get credit because circumstances apparently beyond her control would be preventing her from accomplishing her task.

The Power of the Excuse

Now, at the risk of deviating on a tangent just when clarification is the most necessary, bear with me for a moment. Recently I’ve ranted about how we have created a “bass-ackward” way of thinking about our rights and responsibilities. In general, everyone is created equal as long as they have an adequate excuse. In other words, we all could be making the same money if only we had the same privileges, opportunities, etc. that all the high-achievers had. Since we weren’t all born with silver spoons in our mouths, it’s simply not fair that some people earn more or have better educations, etc. It doesn’t make us any less of a person, though, because I have a good enough excuse (e.g., where I was born, my family structure, disadvantages because of my ethnic makeup, etc.)

So, if I’m not perfect, as long as I have a good enough excuse for my short-comings I can be perceived (by myself, at least, and anyone else who believes me), I am just as good as anyone else. In other words:

Me + Good Enough Excuse = Perfection

The strange irony here is that if I don’t achieve perfection (or convince others that I’m Just As Good) it must be because I didn’t have a Good Enough Excuse, even if we can’t define “Perfection” and even if I, quite frankly, simply am not up to par.

Such was the case with this particular student. Her logic was as follows: I am very busy. I take 17 credits, work part time, and have a full social calendar. In addition, I belong to groups and clubs which demand much of my attention and focus. Since these demands of me and my time have exceeded my capability to fulfill them, something has to give, but it’s not my fault. To her, the time constraints are constraints on time, not constraints on her abilities because, of course, if she only had enough time (the Good Enough Excuse) she would be able to perform her respective duties to Perfection.

“Work I actually do” + “Good Enough Excuse” = Perfection

To her, then, anything that places additional constraints upon her and her time are beyond her control. She did not have any apparent problem identifying those constraints, nor did she have a problem understanding the consequences of their impact. Given that she, herself, is perfect (of course, there’s nothing wrong with her) as is her excuse, the problem must therefore reside in the unreasonable nature of the expectation in the first place. Q.E.D.

What is truly frightening is not the wholesale subscription to this logic that she and other students seem to have. After all, on the surface the logic seems practically impeccable, provided that all the fundamental assumptions are solidly based. No, what’s frightening is that she (and others like her, of whom there are many) are completely incapable of recognizing the inherent flaw in the logic: that it was she who made the choices for her “responsibilities” in the first place.

Education: Built-In Entitlement

Ultimately, as teachers and professors we unwittingly encourage this warped sense of self-entitlement, both in standard grading practices and the way that we build into our academic institutions various mechanisms by which substandard students not only gain entrance into college but also remain (and, as some would argue, thrive).

For instance, it is not uncommon for professors to actually create loopholes in their own grading systems for the exclusion of the lowest score. Such a seemingly benign and charitable gesture is similar to government’s stance on tax cuts: We’re giving you back the money (academic credit) that was originally yours. Subsequently students, like taxpayers, genuinely believe that they are getting a great deal, a bonus or windfall, without realizing that the system was designed to take away their credit in the first place.

More tragically, however, is the very fact that as professors we do the truly hard part for them, whether it be determining paper topics or planning their major/minor combination. There is a process to getting an education, which is roughly the same whether a student is preparing a paper, a term project, or creating a class schedule. The process involves starting off with a broader perspective and whittling away the irrelevant to get to the relevant.

Academic institutions provide a menu of majors and minors and those who deviate from the plan – or show any creativity or self-direction whatsoever – are either shunned or punished outright. The “Extra Value Meal” approach to selecting a major or a minor is usually done with about as much thought, on both the parts of the student and the professor. To do otherwise involves a great deal of paperwork and risks cogging up the already inefficient (and often incompetent) bureaucratic juggernaut that is the administration. Everyone, both students and professors alike, understand the consequences of misplaced or deviant paperwork.

On a smaller scale, professors take the most difficult task of writing papers out of the hands of students as well when providing paper topics. Such a apparently innocuous (and expediting) decision eliminates any need for either creativity of choice or the process of focusing a topic to its core elements. Granted, providing the students with such leeway invariably leads to questions of, “Do you want it this way?” or “Do you want it that way?” or, the more common, “How do you want it?”

As a result, students are convinced that there is a correct, true, perfect response to be provided and often fail to grasp the possibilities open to them. Of course, their professors, having been brought through the same system, fail to grasp this as well. This of course is why the system perpetuates itself without question.

And yet, because of this we are the architects of questions like this future Democrat voter’s.

Because of the nature of how she receives her tasks – pre-packaged, hand-picked, and pret-a-porter – her perspective is one of responsibilities that were thrust upon her, rather than one of her own making. This was an assignment that she saw as assigned to her, rather than one for which she volunteered. To that end, then, the fact that the assignation of a task falls far outside the scope of her capability to fulfill it precludes her from being responsible for its fulfillment. Why should she, then, be punished under these circumstances?

At this point, it’s quite easy to see the impetus behind her question. It almost sounds reasonable, nearly an imperative, to ask it. But it’s still a stupid question. And I bet you thought there were no stupid questions.

Embedding Entitlement Into the Culture

The problem here lies not so much in the question itself, but the culture that has been created that surrounds it. There is absolutely no incentive or motivation for people to attempt to take responsibility for their choices, and it’s been that way (at least in academia) for a long time. After all, for years we’ve known that to fall outside the scope of what is mandated in academia is a recipe for failure and disaster (to this day student GPAs are held as the epitome of academic success: a 4.0 in underwater basket weaving must mean that the student is excellently qualified and brilliant, far more so than a 2.5 student in electrical engineering).

The question therefore becomes, how do we stop the slide down the slippery slope before it’s too late? How do we get people (not just students, though they will eventually evolve into a labor force and even other professors) to understand the relationship between the choices they make and the long term consequences and responsibilities of those choices. How do we bring this ship about face before it collides with the iceberg of unjustified entitlements?

All I know is that it’s not my fault. I have a good enough excuse.