To Ask the Right Questions

[Shevek] was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him;  he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.  At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in.  He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists.  To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain.  They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions;  they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned.  And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark.  How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones?  What was the good in working hard?  If no competitive distinctions were made, one might as well do nothing.

“Well, of course,” Shevek said, troubled. “If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it.”

— Ursula K. LeGuin, in The Dispossessed, 1974


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