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For a while, everyone was talking about Maitland Jones Jr., the New York University organic chemistry professor let go after some of his students created a petition against him. The story has come and gone, but it’s still an excellent illustration of what happens when we overemphasize effort, crowd out inspiration and blame students for treating education as transactional when for them that’s what it’s always been.

It’s been a while since the Jones story broke, so let’s do a quick recap: according to most accounts, the students said the course was “too hard” and that they weren’t getting the “grades that would allow them to get into medical school.” Jones, who has won awards for teaching and authored a widely used textbook on the subject, claims that he was maintaining standards and points to steps he took to support the students, including recording extra help videos that he paid for himself (and are still being used). Jones claims that students’ skills are much worse than they used to be, partly because they don’t study and also because they don’t know how to study. Even so, his contract was terminated.

The comments section of the original New York Times article tended to support Jones, calling out the “entitled” students and defending academic standards. While you might think that lots of people would take the side of the students against the out-of-touch “dinosaur” professors, those views were in the minority. While some takes have been nuanced, and the facts themselves are a little murky, the students have few defenders outside of NYU’s administration, which, fortunately for them, is the only ally they really need.

The case struck a nerve, with most people defending the professor and lamenting the erosion of standards. I see similar views in my network. Every professor I’ve talked to has noticed a drop-off in skills and performance in recent years, especially when reading or higher-order thinking is involved. And while some of these reports are subjective, hard data are available in the form of performance on similar exams and in the shrinking syllabi of reading-based classes. The drop-off is real.

Still, I’m not here to dunk on the students. There’s been enough of that. Rather, I’d like to explain why the students feel the way they do, which isn’t the same thing as defending them. If we understand how we got here, we might see a path to a better future. And that’s important, because what we’re seeing isn’t just about organic chemistry at NYU. It’s about the culture that created this environment and its natural consequences.

Consider this key line from the petition:

“We are very concerned about our scores, and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class.”

In other words, the students feel that grades should be a reflection of the time and effort they put into the class. To them, people who put in the time and effort deserve a good grade. Keep in mind: they weren’t forced to say this intense under cross-examination. They chose to say this because, to them, it’s a good argument.

Of course, almost everyone else doesn’t see it that way. In general, we don’t think that time and effort by themselves entitle you to a good grade. And while we might sympathize with the students, we sympathize more with the potential future patients of those students should those students actually become doctors. If I’m sick, what I really care about is getting competent treatment, and not “effort.”

The best explanation for this gap in expectations should take into account the system that produced these students, and, to be honest, the vast majority of students in college. Think about how we’ve treated them, and then think about how you would react under similar circumstances. The focus on effort, resilience, “grit” or whatever you want to call it, reflects good intentions. We’ve figured out that successful people tend to work hard, and that giving up tends to lead to bad outcomes. But we might have learned the wrong lesson from those findings: successful people work hard, but that doesn’t mean that making people work harder will make them more successful. It’s a classic case of confusing cause and effect, which, ironically, is a higher-order concept that modern students find especially baffling.

We want people to be successful and to work hard, but too often we’re pursuing the wrong goal: instead of designing experiences that develop the inspiration and motivation that will fuel effort, we’ve created systems that require effort while completing ever-expanding lists of uninspiring tasks. While some of this drill and kill is surely necessary, we have gone too far, centering effort so much that other aspects of education are crowded out. This is bad for the people who opt out of this deal and foreclose opportunities. But it’s also bad for the so-called winners, who sacrifice a big part of their childhood to feed the system’s insatiable appetite for credentials.

For me, one memorable manifestation of this approach appeared in the form of my daughter’s middle school “awards” presentation. When the award winners were announced, the presenter invariably explained that they “did all of their work” and “never caused a problem.” They found lots of different ways to say this, so much so that I thought that an AI program was writing their speeches, but it was all real. And no one else in the audience seemed to think that there was anything weird about this. In fairness, they might have just been tired and waiting for the right time to clap, but I found it distressing that no one was recognized for creativity or mastery of the subject matter. And then I remembered my daughter’s experiences in supposedly “advanced” classes. It never got more interesting, or deeper. Instead, you got more of what you would have had anyway, except faster. The whole thing seemed reminiscent of the way lawyers describe the competition to become partners at their law firms: it’s a pie-eating contest in which the reward is more pie.

Now fast-forward to high school: In a world of rampant grade inflation and optional standardized tests, great grades in “rigorous” (read: APs and STEM) classes are required to be competitive. To be admitted into elite competitive programs, students need to load up on classes they probably aren’t interested in, endlessly marching through boring worksheets that test their endurance more than their aptitude, creativity or insight. They have to do this, because there’s a teeming population of competitors who are in the same position and say yes to this deal. But now consider grade inflation: when everyone has great grades in the same subjects, those great grades don’t guarantee anything. They just put you in the running. By contrast, people who don’t have great grades are screened out, and it’s harder for them to show objective evidence of their skill when standardized tests are de-emphasized.

As a result, we’re forcing our most successful students through a narrow path that no one would have designed or preferred. The students who said yes to this deal and somehow succeeded might feel entitled to success, but can you blame them after the way they’ve been treated? If you were in a situation that valued effort and work, even when it was pointless, and you held up your part of the bargain, wouldn’t you want the reward you feel you were promised? Isn’t it strange that these students get criticized for viewing their education as “transactional” when that’s basically been their experience for years? If you motivate by tangible rewards and punish noncompliance, what should you expect, especially considering the costs of higher education?

This doesn’t mean that those NYU organic chemistry students were entitled to better grades or to become doctors. It’s just an argument for some sympathy for their perspective, given what we put them through. And while we’re at it, let’s also think about the people who could have been great doctors but were turned off by an educational system that fetishized effort and crowded out other important qualities, such as critical thinking, creativity and actual interest in the subjects.

Improving this situation won’t be easy, as it’s become the air that we breathe, but if we got ourselves into this problem, we can get ourselves out. Some steps in the right direction include:

  • Alternate forms of credentialing: if we’re rewarding the wrong things and making everyone miserable in the process, there’s a market opportunity to measure important qualities that we’re ignoring. Standardized tests could play a role here, though we could do a lot better than the ones we have now.
  • Engagement first: we know that motivated people will put in endless effort when it matters to them. We all know (or are) people who have endless energy for tasks that interest them but no patience for grunt work. Let’s find ways to inspire instead of punishing people who don’t like the deal we’re offering them.
  • Testing out: Some concepts are important for pretty much everyone and should be required. But we don’t have to spend as much time on them as we do. There should be shortcuts for people who master the essentials and then want to focus elsewhere. Imagine being able to test out of boring experiences on the first day by demonstrating mastery and then being rewarded by getting to work on concepts you find more interesting. Which brings us to …

Rigor outside of STEM. Colleges prefer applicants to have taken STEM courses even when they know that most students don’t want STEM careers. Why is that? Part of it is explained by the view that STEM courses are rigorous, but the other side is that non-STEM courses are considered less rigorous, which in fairness, they can be. So if we think, as I do, that forcing people to take STEM courses is a problem, then we need to offer other courses that are comparable in terms of rigor. That doesn’t mean making them just like STEM courses. Humanities and social science courses can be equally rigorous in their own way, and the path to get there might be easier than we think. In many cases, it might be enough to cut and paste the syllabi and assignments from just a few decades ago. Sometimes, the solution to a problem is to reverse the steps that you took.

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