Right Answers

Written by Austin VanKirk—

I had a student come to my office the other day, and he was pissed off. “I don’t understand why I didn’t get a better grade.” His voice is cracking and I can see that he is on the verge of some angry tears. He is torn, because I’m the authority, and he doesn’t want to challenge the authority, but he is, and he’s confused, and he wants a better grade, but writing is hard for him, and, and, and….

I think it’s important for me to share that we do not give letter or number grades in the class I teach, English 101 (we do, of course, as required by law, have to give students a final grade). This is because we are treating the class like a job—you don’t really get graded on your performance. You show up, do what you’re supposed to do, go home, and get paid. If students do that consistently throughout the course, they receive a B as a final grade—not a bad grade for simply doing what is asked. Now, students can get A grades by going above and beyond what I ask of them—think of this like a bonus or a raise at your job. In terms of this course, this is called doing “exceptional” work. We do this because we want to value the process, the work, that the student is doing—in other words, the learning. Which makes sense, right? You should be evaluated on how much you learn, not how well you spit out an assignment.

Not only was my student upset that I didn’t find his work exceptional, he was mad as hell about writing in general. “I don’t get it. Like, what am I supposed to do? What’s the right way to write? It’s all arbitrary; it’s like you just make it up as you go along. There’s no set answer—how am I supposed to do it!”

Asking what’s the “right answer” in writing is like asking what’s the right way to live life. There’s a million different ways to do it, perhaps some better than others, but that’s really all relative and up to the individual.

This isn’t that unusual, this case with the student. And, looking back, I was the same way. With our high-stakes tests that determine government funding for schools, kids are taught to give the “right” answer, always. Most of you reading this were probably taught the five-paragraph essay. You were told this is the “right” way to write. But, is it? Are there no other ways of writing? Of course there are. But this is what we teach our youth. By making them write all the same way, the powers-that-be can measure success and failure of writing. You ought not to be able to do that. It’s not something that can be quantified. Still, we insist that it can be. And that delivers to me students who are always seeking for that one right answer. When we teach ourselves this way, we do not learn. We are simply regurgitating “right” answers for the sake of expediency.

Wanna know a secret? There are no right answers. Maybe in math there are—but how much of that is theoretical, imaginary? Let’s think of things like √-1. And this is true for science, too. For years, atoms were the smallest units of existence, but then somebody found quarks. What is true, what is right, it’s all relative to the Zeitgeist.

The danger of always looking for the right answer is that everything is then quantified, objectified, capitalized, and becomes a means to a more valuable end. In other words, we’ve stopped caring about the journey and are overly concerned with the destination. If you’re driving from Detroit to L.A. and never take your eyes off the road, you’re going to miss a lot of beautiful country. Remember Disney’s Pocahontas? I’m reminded of the lyrics in “Colors of the Wind” as I write this. Look them up—maybe you’ll see what I mean.

Learning for the sake of learning. Art for art’s sake. These things that I hold dear are vanishing from the face of America as we become increasingly pragmatic and practical. We know this, intuitively, but nobody seems to care. And that saddens me deeply. Instead, we are programmed, made to be robots, which search for the “right” way to do things. I don’t want to be a robot.

Do we always need the “right” answer? Because, let me tell you, there isn’t always one. But there is certain magic in the possibility, in the theory.

But what do I know?

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