Monday, August 31, 2009
Everyone wants heaven on Earth. It would be nice if people simply lent their abilities to society in accordance with the needs of others. Nicer still if people satisfied their needs mindful of others’ ability to accommodate them. But things simply don’t work out that way. Human nature won’t allow it.
For many years I’ve used my classroom to teach students about more than just our system of justice, law and order. I’ve used it to teach important life lessons which, if properly understood and applied, will spare my students no small measure of discomfort in life. This semester I decided to teach them a lesson about human nature.
I wanted to create a little utopia for the 99 students taking my three classes. So I kept the rules very simple and explained why we must have them and how they work to the benefit of our little community.
First, I explained the need to arrive in class on time. I appealed to reason and explained how tardiness reflects poorly upon them. But I kept the emphasis on the collective. I explained that no one person has a right to barge into class and work his way past the podium and down the row to his seat – all the while tripping over book bags and catching his breath while the class focused its attention on his lateness, not the lecture.
And I made it very easy for everyone to follow the rule. I placed a couple of desks in the hall outside the class and told students they could sit there if they arrived late. There would be no need to barge in the classroom late. The door would remain open so the late student could hear the lecture and take notes. Any lingering questions could be answered after class.
Next, I explained the need to come to class without any electronic devices that make strange noises. I appealed to reason and explained that a student looks very foolish when his cell phone goes off in class. But I kept the emphasis on the collective. I explained that ringing cell phones disrupt the concentration of professors and students alike. The disruptions have become such a regular occurrence that the learning environment has suffered appreciably.
And I made it easy for students to follow the rule – even those who sincerely believe they cannot live without a cell phone. The rule states that I must never see or hear a cell phone during the lecture. But those addicted to their cell phones – and, hence, unable to leave them home - could simply shut them off and hide them in their backpacks. I would never know the difference.
After explaining the rules I decided to do something I have never done in my 17 years as a college professor. I decided that, if everyone in the class could follow the two aforementioned rules, the entire class would receive “A” grades. There would be no need for any papers or examinations if they kept the rules all semester. I was creating a real utopia for the students. But it was also a kind of paradise for me since I would not have to grade tests or papers for a whole semester.
Just a few minutes after I had finished explaining the rules – approximately 57 minutes after the two o’clock class began - a student came walking into the lecture late. Naturally, I asked him what he was doing. He said he was there for the three o’clock class. I told him there was no three o’clock class – and that the next one began at 3:30. He argued with me briefly but finally relented and allowed me to continue teaching. I decided that - since it was the first day - this first transgression would not count. I wasn’t yet sure whether he was my student. Later, I found out he was.
So I decided to start anew the next week. But, unfortunately - just thirty minutes into my first lecture of the week – I heard a strange noise coming from a student’s book bag. He grabbed it, opened it up and began frantically searching for the ringing cell phone. He managed to turn the device off just before the eleventh ring. While several of the other students were scowling at him he sat through the rest of the lecture red-faced and embarrassed.
And so that ended our little experiment with utopia. And with it my chances of a semester free from grading papers and exams. It was all because one person could not follow a simple rule. He simply valued his own convenience over the welfare of the collective.
The outcome of this ill-fated experiment comes as no surprise to Christians and Jews. Both know the third chapter of the Bible teaches that even two people cannot follow one rule in exchange for a lifetime in utopia. How could 99 follow two rules for the promise of one pleasant semester?
For those who worship Karl Marx the implications are pretty obvious. The formula for a three hundred million person utopia cannot be found in a 1000 page rule book. We’ll just have to look for answers in Cuba. Or some place where the humans aren’t so self-absorbed.