Curmudgucation: That Damned Question

There's one kid in every class, the one who asks that damned question.

How many paragraphs do we have to have in this essay? How long does it have to be? How many pages do I have to write for this? How many notes do we have to have in the split journal for that chapter? And on and on.

The specifics don't really matter-- they are all a variation on one simple question:

What the absolute least I can get away with doing for this assignment?

It's a terrible question. For one thing, it has prompted too many teachers to make too many dumb rules ("a paragraph must have three sentences" is a dumb rule, for example). It also makes a statement about the student that they probably shouldn't be making out loud.

Don't ask that question, I would tell my students. For one thing, they knew by October what my answer would be. "Long enough to do a good job," I'd say. Or maybe, "Impress me." More importantly, the question reflects poorly on the person who asks it. If the person you're dating asks, "So what's the absolute least amount of time I can spend with you and still keep this relationship alive," your first thought is not, "Oh, this one is a keeper." If you're in a job interview and the person across the desk asks, "What's the absolute least we can get away with paying you," you are not excited about landing that job.

I hear echoes of That Damned Question every time I read something like the Center for American Progress report decrying that high school requirements are not exactly aligned with exactly what students need exactly to get into college.

Part of the problem with these sorts of reports and policy arguments is that they demand exactitude where it cannot be found, as if "college ready" is a single definable state with set criteria that are exactly the same for every student at every high school considering every major at every college. This is foolishness of a high order, like saying that we have a checklist that will show if someone is ready to get married tomorrow.

Human behavior is loaded with many "fuzzy" qualities. What does it mean to be "mature" or "wise" or "funny." and does it mean exactly the same thing for every single human being?

But it's also a variation on That Damned Question, because intentional or not, the question "am I college ready" sets a minimum bar for college readiness. What's the absolute least this kid has to do, we're asking, to be certified college material?

That's a terrible goal. Shooting for the bare minimum is a terrible goal.

The correct answer is "You're going to need to do as much as you can the very best that you can, and then we'll cross our fingers that it's enough to get into the school you want." (Which, of course, also depends on who else is applying to your school and how much they've accomplished-- truly, the closer you look at the idea of telling students that they've done enough to be college ready , the dumber an idea it appears to be.)

The correct answer is "Pursue your strengths and interests just as hard and far as you can."

Not, "Okay, well, accomplish A, B and C, and then you can knock it off for the rest of the year."

I know that many Reformsters have a fondness for efficiency, but the thing is, that doesn't apply here. No effort to gather more education is inefficient or wasted. I have never in my life met someone who said, "Yeah, boy, I wish I just hadn't gotten so much education. Learning all that extra stuff has really held me back in life."

Nobody was ever harmed by getting too much education.

There are some things in life for which knowing the bare minimum requirement is foolish. Love. Kindness. Decency. And education.

Do the most, the best, that you can. And don't ever ask That Damned Question.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.