Some thoughts on a Saturday: Life is not a multiple choice test, it is essays.

Sorry for being so silent for so long.

Yes, I’ve been busy doing a lot of things. One of those things has been helping a friend study for college classes. This past semester my friend took a class in Introduction to Business. I help him by reading through the chapters after he does and then discussing the material with him in more relatable terms. Sometimes textbooks — no matter how well written — have pages and pages of really dense text.

Last semester I did the same thing with his Introduction to Philosophy class: read the chapter he’s studying, sit and summarize it, explain “okay, this type of philosophy would mean that if you were in such-and-such situation, your reaction might be . . . “, and so on.

Talking with my friend about his philosophy tests after he got done taking them, most of the philosophy tests were short essays.

My friend had to actually think and write and compose his answers in the essay tests. For any given question there were obviously some answers which would be completely wrong . . . but there were no guaranteed right answers.

The business class by contrast had both homework and tests that were multiple choice. There was guaranteed to be a right answer. It might not be immediately clear which answer was right, but (a) there was a right answer and (b) it would be in the answers provided.

With the business class, even when there was homework that was fill-in-the-blank, the online site would only accept a very few specific terms. If the textbook used the term “teams”, then the site wanted the term “teams” in the homework. Not “groups”, but “teams”. I eventually commented to my friend that a lot of the business class homework I watched him work on was more “Can you find exactly what the textbook says in Chapter 15, page 251, second paragraph, third sentence?” and less “Do you think you understand what Chapter 15 was about?”

People are inherently lazy. It’s one of our flaws. A tendency towards excessive pride is another inherent human flaw. If you combine

  1. “Here is a list of possible answers, there’s only one ‘right’ answer and it’s guaranteed to be one of these few choices” with
  2. “The right answer is reciting back to us what we already told you” and
  3. “Hooray, you got the right answer, here’s a reward for finding the right answer”,

you can easily train someone to look at all situations as

  1. having one ‘right’ answer, and
  2. the ‘right’ answer will be something they’ve already been told and
  3. the one ‘right’ answer will be found in the set of possible solutions that immediately presented themselves.

Which isn’t true of life at all.

Life is essay questions.

Did you understand what you saw and heard before?

To be more honest, did you think you understood what you saw and heard?

Really? Are you sure? Then if you understood it so well, can you apply it to this new situation?

Those aren’t questions with easily found ‘right’ answers that you get a cookie for getting. There may be no right answer, or a lot of right answers, or you may have completely misunderstood the question to start with. You may not get a cookie from anyone else, but instead have to tell yourself you did the right thing and leave it at that. Even if you come across the same question again, you might have a different answer next time.

That’s life. Life is not a multiple choice test with a guaranteed ‘right’ answer, it’s composing your own words and actions and putting it out there and hoping like heck you actually understood the question.

– Addendum –

I mentioned some of this train of thought to my friend. He said that prior to taking that philosophy class, he would have approached the business class as just simply a search-and-replace. You read the way the question is worded and from that deduce the answer they want to hear.

But after the philosophy class, he started to actually think about what was being said in his other classes. His other classes were no longer yes-I-told-you-what-you-wanted-to-hear-without-really-thinking-about-what-you-meant-thank-you-for-my-A-or-B, he had started to get into conversations such as “Yes, I didn’t use the exact right terms, but I’m certain what I said was the same as what you meant and I’m going to fight you on this because what I meant matters just as much as whether I used the exact same term as you did.”

And both my friend and I had to admit the philosophy class had a lasting positive affect on his education after all. We hadn’t expected to say that.

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