On B.S.

A few weeks ago on the bus, I overheard two guys discussing the difference between Engineering and Anthropology.  One of the guys said, “It’s so easy to B.S. in Anthro and get an ‘A’ because there are multiple correct answers. It’s not like in Engineering where there’s only one correct answer.”  Both snickered.  The other guy then gave the first guy some advice on how to do well on an upcoming engineering exam: “You don’t really have to have the correct answer.  Just write down some key concepts that are related to what the question is asking.  All you have to do is show you’re familiar with the material.” Maybe this is the overreaction of a bona-fide nerd, but I was indignant.

While I do think that this attitude may not be the majority of undergrads, it is alarming how many people have the attitude of University as another certificate and line on their resumes.  It’s the attitude “What’s the most I can get for the least amount of work?”  While efficiency is great, this isn’t quite efficiency.  It’s B.S.  Philosopher Harry Frankfurt dedicated a slim book “On Bullshit” in which he delineated the difference between lying and B.S.’ing.  When a person lies, they at least know what the truth is. However, when people B.S., they just don’t care what the truth is.  To Frankfurt, we tolerate B.S. more and more, and it’s more harmful than lying.  I’d like to think it’s more harmful than lying because people are only cheating themselves.  I mount my moral high-pony…

As an undergrad, I could never understand a few of my fellow students who saw school as entitlement, jumping through hoops, pulling the appropriate levers and pushing the appropriate buttons so they can get on with their “real” lives earning a comfortable living.  While I understand why not everyone is OK living the simple life, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t want to learn to get excited about learning.  Not only would they be more “competitive” in getting that coveted investment banking job because, honestly, they’d be smarter, but they’d be happier also.  The English class, various philosophy classes, astronomy classes, and anthropology classes I took as an undergrad have really made me a more resilient and happy person.  I also think that they made me a bit smarter.  Because I took the material seriously, school was never a chore.  I feel like those few students who have the attitude of getting the most for doing the least are indeed getting the least for doing the most.  Because they don’t enjoy what they learn, they’re wasting their time.  The benefits are also marginal, because more often than not, they’re not the best students and whatever brownie points they may get are marginal in their ultimate goal of getting that high paying job.  So they put in all that work and don’t enjoy it and may not even have any corporate-world fruits to enjoy from that labor (and tuition).  I guess this is what people mean by becoming a tool for corporations.  People learn to alienate themselves from their own brains thinking that it’s all for their rational-economic benefit in the end.  They think they’re gaming the system, but they gamed themselves.

I’m not saying that corporate jobs are inherently evil.  In fact, I think it would be a lot more robust and ethical if people learned to learn.  The corporate world would also be happier, too, if there were happier people in it.  Think about workplaces where people have genuine interests (and could express them without shame) and can play creative pranks on each other.

So let’s dispel that myth that B.S. gets you somewhere.  I now dismount.