Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the Oxford Tutorial System

On my way back from the barracks in the middle of nowhere Switzerland I was reading ”Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M Pirsig. In this book at one point the argument is made by one of the characters that to remove the hypocrisy from the University system students should not have access to their grades until the end of the year. The character begins by explaining what would happen to a student who was conditioned to work for grades rather than out of interest:

Such a student, the demonstrator hypothesized, would go to his first class, get his first assignment and probably do it out of habit. He might go to his second and third as well. But eventually the novelty of the course would wear off and, because his academic life was not his only life, the pressure of other obligations or desires would create circumstances where he just would not be able to get an assignment in. Since there was no degree or grading system he would incur no penalty for this. Subsequent lectures which presumed he’d completed the assignment might be a little more difficult to understand, however, and this difficulty, in turn, might weaken his interest to a point where the next assignment, which he would find quite hard, would also be dropped. Again no penalty. In time his weaker and weaker understanding of what the lectures were about would make it more and more difficult fo him to pay attention in class. Eventually he would see he wasn’t learning much; and facing the continual pressure of outside obligations, he would stop studying, feel guilty about this and stop attending class. Again, no penalty would be attached. But what had happened? The student, with no hard feelings on anybody’s part, would have flunked himself out. Good! This is what should have happened. He wasn”t there for a real education in the first place an had no real business there at all. A large amount of money and effort had been saved and there would be no stigma of failure and ruin to haunt him the rest of his life.No bridges had been burned. The student”s biggest problem was a slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and-whip grading, a mule mentality which said, “If you don’t whip me, I won’t work.” He didn’t get whipped. He didn’t work. And the cart of civilization, which he supposedly was being trained to pull, was just going to have to creak along a little slower without him. […]The hypothetical student, still a mule, would drift around for a while. He would get another kind of education quite as valuable as the one he”d abandoned, in what used to be called the “school of hard knocks.” Instead of wasting money and time as a high-status mule, he would now have to get a job as a low status mule, maybe a mechanic. Actually his real status would go up. He would be making a contribution for a change.

-J

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