Friday, June 27, 2008

The Dangers of Bottom Lining

Over the 21 years I have been teaching college students, I have observed more than one student who approached college with what I call a “bottom line” approach – Do the minimal required to get the credit needed. Time after time, I’ve see that approach fail. And yet, it seems to be a pernicious kind of virus that seems to readily infect a substantial share of every crop of entering college freshmen, some never shaking it right up to graduation.

A number of these bottom liners show up in lower division general education classes such as the HUM 2210 and 2230 sections taught online. Many appear in their final terms at the university, having avoided until the very last the classes that seek to make well rounded human beings out of them. Many later report that they had presumed that online classes aren’t real classes (they have somewhat of a point here – there is a bit of absurdity in taking a class which focuses on what it mean to be human in a manner guaranteed never to have to actually encounter one) and thus that they won’t have to do much to get the passing grade they need. The latter is where wishful thinking collides with the ability to perceive reality clearly often with disastrous results.

There are a number of problems with bottom lining. The first is a character concern. It is my observation that bottom lining is rooted in laziness and fear. College couch potatoes are nothing new. Many middle and upper class students come to college with inordinate senses of entitlement one strain of which suggests that minimal work and maximal grades are somehow their due.

The pernicious effects of consumerism also impact college attendance which somehow suggest that students pay for credits and thus grades. This, of course, misses the reality that tuition pays a small fraction of the cost of college educations and that paying one’s fees simply grants one an admission ticket to the class. What happens once one arrives there is dependent upon student performance. Hence the concern for the incipient laziness which afflicts more than a few middle to upper class freshman .

I have come to suspect, however, that the fear element is the stronger motivation for bottom lining. College educations, if they are truly engaged, are much more than mere vocational training. Educated people are expected to be informed, to have a base knowledge of the world around them with which they can positively and productively interact with that world. More importantly, educated people are expected to be able to think critically and creatively, to adapt to changes in a world where the pace of change has steadily accelerated over the past half century. While vocational skills have a very short shelf life in a rapidly changing world, critical and creative thinking skills are vital to those who would seek to remain afloat if not ride the wave of change.

Here’s where the fear comes in. Critical thinking requires the ability to be aware that human beings make and operate out of presumptions as a matter of course. It requires the ability to assess those presumptions constantly. It requires monitoring one’s gut for the emotional and often unconscious aspects of one’s encounter with the world. That requires time alone with little distraction and an intentional willingness to consider and reconsider one’s thoughts and feelings.
My observation is that most people don’t like their own company generally. We seem to go out of our way to avoid being alone with ourselves for any length of time. That is particularly true of young college students many of whom fill up every waking second with noise and distractions. The compulsive use – and tendency toward abuse - of cell phones, computer games and all sorts of passive entertainment suggest this. The rationalization of this behavior as somehow being hip also suggests this. “Multitasking” is a postmodern term that essentially means doing a lot of things at the same time in a mediocre at best fashion because one is so distracted they cannot fully engage the tasks they have undertaken.

It’s a lot easier to tune out than to be present. That is particularly true for classes which require critical thinking and demand self-reflection. For people unaccustomed to engaging either, its small wonder that bottom lining becomes the response.

Where the character issue becomes particularly pointed is when one considers the potential of a student in light of bottom lining behavior. Two religious thinkers shed some light on the problem here. The famed first century CE Rabbi Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Similar comments are accredited to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of Luke, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Both comments zero in on the problem with an unhealthy focus on self to the exclusion of the community in which one finds themselves. To quote an overused commercial jingle, the unwillingness to “Be all you can be” is at some level a failure of character. All one can be includes not only the development of one’s own talents to their fullest capacities but also to recognize that it is not all about me, that one’s talents are needed in the communities which make our own lives possible.

There are also pragmatic reasons why bottom lining is a bad bet. In addition to functioning at a relatively shallow level and being socially irresponsible, bottom lining requires a skill that few bottom liners possess: the ability to perform perfectly at the bottom line. There is nothing below the bottom line but failure. Hence there is no room for error. And my observation is that few students perform at such a high level. And if they do, they generally tend to not be bottom liners.

The other pragmatic reason that bottom lining is a bad idea is that such approaches to life become habitual. As Buddhist teaching states, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your deeds; watch your deeds, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your destiny.”

Most college students come to college with inadequate and undeveloped study skills. Many bright students have been able to get by with little effort for maximal return in their pre-college educations. I know. I was one of them. And so I know why so many resent having to do more, having to think more deeply, having to express themselves more clearly than they are accustomed to doing.

That’s not an unexpectable initial response. But it’s the long term response that matters. Accomplishment through hard work – even hard work we don’t want to do, perhaps especially the hard work we don’t want to do – often results in a sense of empowerment. And the wrestling with our own thoughts and feelings, checking our guts and testing our endless presumptions, often results in a maturity that is the mark of socially responsible adult human beings.
This is hardly to say that mindless entertainment and less than fully engaged presence has no place in our world. We all need down time, otherwise we burn out. There is a time and a place for everything. But the place for disengagement is not in the college educational process. Minimal effort = minimal reward. I often tell my students “You can live as limited a life as you choose.” The question I’d ask is simply this: Why would anyone want to live a limited life? Or as Socrates put it, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

My .02 worth. Your mileage may vary.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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