Last night, a teacher I know was bemoaning the sad state of our educational system. He complained about students who outright cheat or take massive shortcuts aimed at acing tests without actually learning anything. Though I didn’t disagree, I told him teachers and the system itself are to blame, since they permit the practice. And as I can personally attest, it’s an age-old problem, existing at all levels. I practically perfected the art of the half-assed work ethic during my school years, and I got away with it! Just to emphasize the point, I shared a typical example from my college career.
During spring semester freshman year, I took an introductory level European history course. I attended exactly two lectures: the first, in order to hear what the professor planned for the term; and the last, to catch his announcement regarding the final exam. At that last lecture, he explained that the final exam scores would dictate our overall course grades. He also distributed six essay questions he’d choose from for the test. Specifically, four of the six would appear on the exam, and each student would have to cover two of his or her choice.
I hadn’t done any of the required reading for the course, and I didn’t intend to cure the omission at such a late date. Anyway, I wanted to study smart, not hard. So I played the odds instead. Clearly, it made no sense to learn answers to more than four questions. Even if both of those I ignored showed up on the exam, the other two would be ones I’d prepared. But boning up on four still seemed like a lot of work. I figured I could get by reviewing three of them. That way, I’d have a problem only in the unlikely event each of the other three appeared.
Wouldn’t you know it, three out of four! To my credit, after a single internal oh shit!, I didn’t panic. It seemed a no-brainer to first tackle the single area I’d actually covered, an inquiry regarding Henry the VIII’s founding of the Anglican Church. In my reckoning, if I really nailed that one, maybe the professor would cut me some slack on the other. I threw in the kitchen sink, cramming in every detail I recalled about Henry’s emancipation from the church in Rome. By the time I placed the last period, less than half the time remained to write the second essay.
I can only imagine my glaze of incomprehension as I stared at each of the three remaining questions, trying to pick one I could say something about. I decided to go with a query concerning the factors leading to Napoleon’s downfall. Truth be told, I knew more about his psoriasis than the fall of his empire. But I did know a lot about the battle of Waterloo. As a teenager, I’d often played an in-depth strategy game covering that conflict. I realized the professor hadn’t actually mentioned Waterloo, but what choice did I have? Bereft of any better option, I gave him five fact-filled pages detailing why Napoleon lost. Almost as an afterthought, I tacked on half a page of pure drivel, weakly linking the defeat to blathering generalities about the fall of every empire.
I scored an A, of course. As I told my teacher friend last night: “Chalk it up as another triumph in the long tradition of educational mediocrity.”