…To break a sweat over a dying race

29 05 2008

One of my friends was surprised this morning to discover that he had actually passed his online Spanish 103 class; this meant that he had officially finished his college credits and was now a graduate. After a little bit of friendly ribbing and a mock graduation ceremony (I knew I saved that lei for a reason), he proceeded to talk about how little effort he had put into the class, even deciding not to do some of his homework and a test or two. In fact, he wrote a whole note about how proud he was of having finished college in general without putting in any sort of extraordinary effort whatsoever. Now, while his apparent apathy should be taken with a grain of salt, the fact remains that he sees finishing something like college as a mere footnote; in fact, the whole thing is kind of a joke to him. He sees his success as something to brag about (albeit in a half-joking sort of way) to those that have expended much more effort but might have little more (if anything) to show for it, other than some nebulous idea of self-satisfaction.

Now, this is in no way intended to disparage my friend. He would be one of the first people to recognize the value in hard work and self-discipline, but he simply doesn’t care enough about academics to apply those ideas to his education. He openly admits his apathy for expending effort in what he sees as the inconsequential areas of life, and it is more of a souce of amusement to him and others than anything else.

I simply have to ask myself, though, why such apathy in life is so attractive. In every single class I ever took, I never failed to encounter students who aimed to do the minimal amount of work in order to pass the class. Understanding that you can only put so much time and effort into each class, I still cringed each time someone would ask the professor to describe the lowest level of success they would need to attain, even when I was the one desperate to know the answer. In my classes, I inevitably made a choice about how hard was going to try. In Spanish, for instance, I made up my mind from day one that I was going to do my best on every project. Of course I let myself down at times, but I can trace a very distinct line of thought in my Spanish efforts in comparison to my work in a few journalism classes. For some reason, that sense of apathy just permeates my thought process if I don’t make up my mind to guard against it right off the bat.

Why is it so cool not to care about doing well? I’ve called plently of people nerds, both to their face and behind their back, simply because they were trying a lot harder than I was. Obviously this label might be appropriate at times, since there are always going to be clear instances in which one only needs to try so hard to get the job done well (See Exhibit A: Principles of Advertising). I’ll recognize that this might be more true for some people than others, since I know that we’re all gifted differently, but there is a marked difference between striving hard to do well in class so that you can get those honors or that high grade and trying hard in life in general.

One of my other friends always competed with me (and I with them) in classes that we shared to see who could get the better grade. I always fancied myself better than them because I would expend only as much effort as it took to threaten beating their score. Part of that, I’ll admit, is because I felt myself to be superior to them. I only played the grades game because I had no excuse not to; a C would be acceptable for some people, but to me, an A simply meant that I had not slacked off in the class too much. I know I could have gotten B’s and C’s all throughout school with almost no effort. I say this not because I’m proud of it, but because I can see how the system is really geared to make people like me succeed with ease while pushing those who are not very intellectually endowed. The problem, however, is that people in the former category are rarely pushed at all, and that people in the latter one usually recognize how much harder they have to work to pull a B than those that easily get an A-. Hence, they simply aim to get a B or a C and assume that they simply cannot get an A without expending more energy than it is worth.

You know what? They aren’t always wrong, either. Perhaps that’s just a testament to how flawed our grading system is. Dr. Tarpley always started off his classes talking about how much he hated having to grade students on such an impersonal level. He almost never gave tests in his class, preferring to make students read and talk and give presentations to others about what they learned. Guess what? This pushed me just as much, I think, as it pushed the C students. I dreaded most of those presentation days just as much, if not more, than they did because I knew how well I should be doing. Dr. Tarpley would have been able to tell if I had just phoned it in on presentation days, and this knowledge kept me honest in my work way more than any test or paper ever did. Is it a coincidence that public speaking is so greatly feared by this generation? When you are forced to talk openly about what you have learned and what you think, you have no excuses. I wish I could say that this worked to my advantage all the time, but it took me until my fourth semester (thanks Donna) to realize that I couldn’t coast through college and be happy, much less make my professors happy. After talking to Dr. Thoennes on Friday, I realized that I could have done so much better during my college years but that, like the workers in Matthew 20, I’d rather have come two years late than not at all.

Song of the Week: Apathetic Way to Be (Relient K)

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