Education · The Working World

A Lot of People Don’t Make Any Effort (Particularly in Higher Education)

What sometimes baffles me is how little people seem to care about anything. No matter where you look, they are only half-assing it. Phoning it in is absolutely an art form in public administration, industry, education, and everywhere else. When was the last time you had a craftsman come who did not cut some corners? If you work in a reasonably competitive industry, then people can’t slack off too much, even though there is plenty of that going on still. Yet, the most staggering experiences of people not bothering at all I have come across were in tertiary education. Let me tell you about a few such examples that absolutely blew my mind.

First, I once took a course of lectures on English Poetry at university. The professor handed out a reading list and, in order to simulate some scholarly activity, he had asked us to look up a good part of the poems we were to discuss in books in the library. We had to use authoritative editions, so going online and printing off whatever you found did not cut it. So far so good. However, it turned out that I was the only student who subsequently discovered that a particular book was not available in our local library. The professor was unaware of this as he had his own private library, so he simply assumed another copy of the book was also available at university. That was not the case. To add insult to injury, that guy had given more or less the same lectures for years and never had any student pointed out to him that one of the mentioned primary sources, which students were required to consult, was unavailable. No, we did not have Library Genesis back then, and Google Books was only in its infancy.

Second, if you take a humanities class, you get to write term papers. You are supposed to reflect critically on whatever bullshit you have to write about, and you get helpful feedback from a master scholar (or the usual fraud in those disciplines). A good friend of mine took classes in German Literature (and later on even got a PhD in that field). In one of his advanced classes, he got a term paper back with a ‘B’ grade. There were no notes by the grader in the paper, nothing, so he approached the professor, and probed why he didn’t get an ‘A’. What then emerged was what that lazy sack of shit who gets paid very handsomely by the German taxpayer did not even bother to read his term paper, nor any of the others, and simply awarded everyone a ‘B’, which was seen as a respectable grade back then. Today, he probably only hands out ‘A’s. Instead of grading fifty or sixty term papers, he just gave everyone a ‘B’. My friend later found out that everybody in that class he had contacted had likewise gotten a ‘B’, and none of them got suspicious.

You may think that this is the kind of nonsense that only happens in the humanities, but I encountered the same in a STEM course. I did a project-based course in which I sunk a lot of hours into my work, and got a measly ‘B’ in the end. As I was unhappy with that, I approached the professor, together with a “student advocate” as an unbiased mediator, as that was the prescribed procedure. The professor’s first line of defense was that I got a ‘B’ because I did not do any of the optional parts — most students didn’t do them, but I had done all of them. He just threw this out without looking and my submission. Upon facing some resistance, he finally opened my files and looked through them. The look on his face was one of embarrassment. It took him less than a minute to apologize and stammer that he made a mistake. The official explanation I later got was that there must have been an error when filling out grade sheets as my work was clearly worthy of an ‘A’. However, my impression was that he had never looked at my submission, or anybody else’s, for that matter. Nobody else had complained because in a technical degree program, more or less every student is just happy to pass.

Third, I once worked through a standard technical textbook in a particular niche. The book itself has had only one edition yet, but many printings. It was perhaps not the most popular book of its kind, but certainly a highly regarded and, relatively speaking, pretty successful one. I went through it from cover to cover, doing all the exercises and ignoring not a single footnote. I found a few typos as well as ambiguous formulations. I thought it can’t hurt, so I emailed the professor with my findings, of course obsequiously writing that probably the following issues have been raised by others before and that I apologize if I waste his time. The guy emailed me back and thanked me. As it turned out, despite this book having been published by an elite academic publishing house (yes, one of those two), having gone through multiple printings, and easily thousands of students being told that they have to buy it, some rather obvious mistakes slipped past everyone. A more benevolent interpretation is that everyone noticed those mistakes, yet nobody bothered to inform the author or publisher.

When I was a kid, I had the misguided belief that the world of adults was a different place and that people actually cared about their work, unlike the roughly 75% of morons and slackers I encountered in school. Little did I know back then that people don’t really mature much in life. A 14 year-old unreliable schoolboy will turn into Joe in cubicle #4531 who takes three-hour lunch breaks, takes five hours for a task that can easily be done in 30 minutes, and can’t effectively prioritize his work. Sometimes, he forgets about something or does not care, and just doesn’t do it. You may think that a high-schooler with 2,500 hours played in a game like League of Legends is a loser, but that’s only because you haven’t met his father who clocked 4,000 hours in Microsoft Solitaire at work.

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5 thoughts on “A Lot of People Don’t Make Any Effort (Particularly in Higher Education)

  1. “What sometimes baffles me is how little people seem to care about anything.”

    Reading this I thought you’d ramble on about how people don’t care about fundamental stuff in their life.
    What surprises me the most is how almost nobody knows anything about money and retirement. Heck, they can’t even explain what money is. No wonder this part never gets attention from the school reformers in politics. They are leftists and poor people vote left. So they leave everybody dumb.

    1. Retirement is too much of a long-term and abstract concept for most people to understand.

      And most people only understand money in terms of the price of X and how many numbers are in their bank account/credit limit.

  2. As a part time professor, I am familiar with the rot in academia, particularly in the humanities. Thats why I have avoided getting into academia full time.

    Once upon a time, as a young prof just getting started, I witnessed a highly regarded professor take a final exam. He basically told the entire class to respond to a few questions, but after they handed in after 2 hours of writing (and left the room), the proceeded to disregard everything and just copy everyones midterm grade as their final grade. No one flunked. I lost al respect for him that day.

    I am reminded of a book I am reading, The Graves of Academe by Richard Mitchell (the Underground Grammarian). You can read it for free here,

    Its quite short, 155 pages in my PDF version.

    1. I’ll have a look at this book. There have been a few books on that topic. One I enjoyed was Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa. Its central thesis is that (most) students don’t really learn anything in college with an essentially nonexistent increase in reading, writing, and critical thinking ability. This issue is more pronounced in subjects that don’t teach any concrete skills. You probably don’t want an engineer who didn’t go to college to build a bridge, while a degree does not really matter all that much, in terms of skill, for many other professions.

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