A Student Speaks Truth to Power — a short story

Posted on 2015 July 23

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“Okay, last week we had a test with an extra-credit question at the end.” The professor stood at the base of the lecture hall and gazed up at the rows of students seated above him. “Let’s take a look at that question one more time.”

He poked at an electronic tablet; the wall behind him lit up with an image of the test question. It read: “You have an opportunity to earn extra credit on your exam. Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added. Please be warned that if 10% or more of the class selects 6 points, none of you will receive any extra credit.”

The professor gestured at the image. “What was I trying to accomplish here?”

Someone in the front row said, “Screw with our brains?” Laughter rippled through the hall.

The professor smiled. “Well, maybe a little, just to keep you awake. But about one quarter of you chose six points, so nobody will receive any extra credit. I’m demonstrating that if too many people behave selfishly, the group will suffer.”

A student said, “So it’s the tragedy of the commons.”

“Exactly. When there’s a community resource that’s free to all, some people will overuse it and everyone will suffer.”

A hand shot up from the third row. “Wait, wait, there’s something wrong.”

The professor turned his head. “What’s that?”

“Well, we had no way to communicate with each other about how to handle the situation. It becomes a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ problem, where we have to guess what everyone else is going to do. And if everyone else is going to be selfish, what’s the point of being a martyr?”

The professor walked over toward the side of the hall where the questioner sat. “And how can you know that everyone will be selfish? As it turned out, about three-fourths of you chose the selfless action.”

The student persisted. “But were we really being selfless? I mean, you’re gonna see our choices, and if we choose six points, you’ll disapprove, and our grades might suffer.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t—”

“But if we choose two points, we’ll impress you with our selflessness and thereby improve our chances. Even though we’re really being selfish the whole time.”

“But I would hope that you at least think about what’s best for the group and, by extension, what’s best for you.”

“How can we work together, if you grade on a curve?”

The professor shook his head. “I don’t grade that way. Anyone who achieves a ninety or above gets an ‘A’.”

“What happens if we work together and everyone gets an ‘A’? You’ll make the questions harder. We get punished for working together. It ends up being a curve anyway. “

The professor stood there a moment. “Well, what does that have to do with the extra-credit question?”

“It means we can’t help but be selfish when we don’t know what’s going on and a wrong answer will get us punished.”

“I said I wouldn’t punish you.”

“If my score is on the bubble, it’s bound to affect your judgment.”

The other students shifted in their seats. A few giggled nervously.

The professor’s eyes narrowed. “And if you’re right, then how will asking all these questions improve your grade?”

The hall grew deathly quiet.

The student cleared his throat. “I work my ass off all summer, plus nights during the school year, to pay for this education. One small scholarship partly defrays housing, that’s all. I’m spending good money and I want to learn as much as possible. How can I decide for myself what the best moral viewpoint is, if I must first adopt a politically correct one before answering the test questions? I want to be able to speak my mind and answer questions from my heart without fear of punishment, or I’m wasting my time here. Correct?”

The professor looked grim. “I think you should see me after class.”

The student stared at the professor, then sighed and stood up. “No, thanks,” he said, and walked out of the lecture hall.

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