Some time ago, I had a heated argument with a colleague of mine on how to treat our students. His considerable experience as a pedagogue had taught him that students fail classes less often if the professor keeps them on a short leash. I could see the benefits of enforcing attendance polices and setting deadlines for various steps in writing projects. It is not a big secret that most young adults do not have enough self-control and are even more prone to procrastination than their parents. If we had this conversation in a high school I would have agreed with my colleague's position.
But I argued that my goal as a college professor extends beyond helping my students to pass my courses. One of the functions of university education, in my view, is to prepare the intellectual elite of the nation for the challenges of real life. That is the main reason why I avoid giving prepackaged, easily gradable, multiple-choice questions and insist on doing things from scratch, even though it takes so much more of my time without additional compensation. I also like to give my students the long rope, fully aware that some of them will give up on their long-term goals for immediate gratification and hang themselves by the end of the semester. Such public (self)executions teach those who fail my courses and their peers lessons far more valuable than the ones in any of the textbooks I use.
There are those benevolent politicos whose hearts bleed every time one of their fellow Americans makes a bad choice and gets hurt. They have dedicated their careers to creating rules that take away our opportunities to make decisions that may endanger our well-being. I have commented in a previous column how such heroic motherly efforts turn our democracy into idiocracy as a consequence of the idea that governments should treat the people the way parents treat their young children (or, in some cases, the way generals treat their soldiers). Shouldn't it be the other way round, considering that most of our individual mistakes have very limited impact on the general welfare, while a single policy faux pas can ruin the entire nation?
"Burn the ships," yelled Cortez when he arrived on the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula five centuries ago. Leaving his men no escape, he raised their commitment to a whole new level. Thus a handful of Spanish adventurers conquered the mighty Aztec empire and changed the course of history. Can you imagine how far we could go if the sovereign people of this republic would burn their government's credit cards with a constitutional amendment that takes away the ability of Congress to tax their future in peacetime?