The Irresponsible Pedagogy of “Hard Work”

Admission to a university like Cambridge is no small feat. It reflects innate intelligence and accomplishment. And isn’t that good enough?

Please be careful how you handle yourselves here in these early weeks: remember that you are NOT at any other uni, where students do drink a lot and do have what they regard as a “good time” – and you are NOT on a course, as some Cambridge courses sadly are, where such a behaviour pattern in possible or acceptable.

Physical Sciences is a VERY hard subject, which will require ALL of your attention and your FULL brain capacity (and for a large fraction of you, even that will not be quite enough). You can ONLY do well (i.e. achieve your potential, which rightly or wrongly several people here assumed you have) I you are completely focused, and learn to enjoy the course. People who just TAKE the course, but enjoy their social life, can easily survive in many subjects — but not in this one.

This came in an email from Prof. Eugene Terentjev to first-year Natural Science students, and all hell broke loose.

Eugene Terentjev draw the fury of students and mental health activists after sending out an email last week to first-year natural sciences undergraduates at the UK’s world-famous Cambridge, telling them the course will be difficult and thus they should refrain from drinking and other social activities if they wish to succeed.

Why would an academic admonishing students to “work hard” draw fury?

The professor’s comments caused an uproar among activists and students, who called his email “extremely damaging” and neither “appropriate nor acceptable,” with one other university vice-chancellor accusing Terentjev of “frightening impressionable undergraduates,” the London Times reported.

A mental health campaign at the university, Student Minds Cambridge, said the message sent by the professor “could be extremely damaging to the mental well-being of the students concerned, and potentially others as well,” the Times reported.

If the connection between “work hard” and outrage still seems elusive, it’s likely due to your insensitivity to the mental well-being of easily frightened, impressionable undergrads. A vice-chancellor calls the notion “scaremongering.”

“The university believes that all first-year students in all disciplines, having undergone the thorough admissions process that Cambridge requires, have the capacity to succeed academically,” a spokesperson for the University told the Times.

And no doubt admitted students have the “capacity to succeed,” although that doesn’t address the question, which one would think would be obvious to anyone in an administrative position at a university as elite as Cambridge. You can do it? Sure, but will you? Being admitted is wonderful, and no doubt student and her parents are thrilled. But that’s just the first step in the process of being educated. The next step is to do the work necessary to be educated. The question isn’t whether they have the capacity, but whether they will, in fact, work hard.

Is “work hard” the next flavor of hate speech? Does this oppress delicate minds by scaring them into believing that if they put in too little effort, they might fail? Guess what, kids?

Resilience is a popular word these days, and one that so many offer to salve the fear of failure. But its use is put to excusing failure and bouncing back, as if by magic. Rather than ponder what you did, or didn’t do, that resulted in your failure, problems are wiped away under the guise of “stercus accidit.”

There is no point to figuring out the problem, since that’s backward looking and we can’t change the past. All that need be done is shrug off failure, learn nothing from one’s poor choices (which aren’t really poor, since you’re entitled to make whatever choices you make) and bravely move forward under the pretense of being a hero for not giving up.

The toughening up of the young is not only an offensive notion, used by old people to oppress them and make them feel literally awful about themselves, just because they’ve failed. Terentjev’s email to his first-year charges sought to pre-emptively address the coming doom of poor choices.

His admonition was an act of love. Tough, but love. I’ve never known a person who hasn’t made a poor choice in his life, and hasn’t suffered consequences as a result. But the fewer poor choices made, the fewer the consequences. And when a poor choice is made, and consequences suffered, the most useful thing one can do is learn from it to avoid repeating the same poor choices and suffering consequences again.

What does not help is to rationalize it away, to shift blame elsewhere, to pretend that the choice wasn’t poor, but that some terrible hand of misfortune dealt you a bad hand and it wasn’t your fault.

It was your fault. My poor choices were my fault. When we fail to work hard, we don’t achieve the success we would have had we chosen to do the work rather than go out for happy hour.

Granted, hard work is a bourgeois value, but then, most of us don’t have trust funds to fall back on and either are, or aspire to be, a member of the bourgeoisie. When the notion of hard work becomes scaremongering, a form of hate speech designed to oppress the young, it becomes clear why there are so many young people incapable of mustering the toughness to overcome adversity.

Despite our best efforts, our hardest work, misfortune will still happen. Bad hands will be dealt, and it will not be your fault. Luck plays an enormous role in success, but the harder you work, the luckier you will be. Don’t add to the hardships over which you have no control but creating hardships through poor choices. And don’t lie to yourself that the consequences of your bad choices couldn’t be helped when they could.

Life is hard enough when you make good choices, when you work hard. But if you want to succeed, hard work will surely improve your chances and enable you to take advantage of the good luck that will also come your way. Rather than condemn a professor like Terentjev for having the concern and maturity to guide his students toward good choices, appreciate that at least one academic won’t sell you into a future of failure for the sake of appeasement.

21 comments on “The Irresponsible Pedagogy of “Hard Work”

  1. that david from Oz

    I am left flabbergastered. I know where my flabber is, and it is completely up the creek.
    SHG, I don’t know how you keep ploughing through this crap, but I salute you. I’m now going to drink.

    1. SHG Post author

      To the extent anybody gives a damn, I try to provide some counterbalance of normalcy to trends that have seized hold. Until the pendulum swings again, a lot of kids will suffer if they buy into this crap.

      1. Boffin

        Hurr durr – somebody did something stupid. Yutes today are so silly. Let’s all laugh at them!

        This has no more value than cat videos.

  2. the other rob

    In the Cantabrigian vernacular, those studying Natural Sciences are known as NatScis. I’m just going to leave that out there.

  3. Elpey P.

    I hope the school provides the survivors of this letter with the resources they need for their emotional labor.

    1. KP

      AND the followup to the followup..!

      “Dad said when I’m older I’ll find nothing more enjoyable than learning.

      I said ‘Fine, so I’ll learn when I’m older’

      He said if I didn’t start cracking books now, this would be as old as I’d get”

      ..and the infinite wisdom of Hobbes-

      “Sounds like you’ve learnt something already.”

  4. B. McLeod

    I don’t see anything about a Natural Science course that would make it especially difficult. Maybe the professor means to convey as little as that they will actually have to read and comprehend the assigned materials. When I was in school, that sort of thing went without saying, but, now it is a radical proposition. About twenty years ago, my old Contracts professor from law school stopped teaching, and it was because he could not deal with students having stopped preparing for class. Not only were students no longer briefing the cases, but they weren’t reading them either. Hence, his attempts at “Socratic method,” whether he tried “rolling boulder” or “lightning bolt” selection, simply bounced off student after student who had no idea about any of the cases or principles to be covered in class that day.

    About that same time, my old school began a “law school boot camp” designed to supply the incoming 1Ls with the basic civics they needed to begin an attempt at a legal education. This covered topics from the primary school and junior high school courses of my day, concerning the existence of separate federal and state systems, how they interrelated, and what each did. When I have visited the school, I noticed there are now signs posted in the restrooms (at least the men’s room), admonishing students to turn off the water when they are done using the sinks, and to place used paper products in the waste can rather than on the floor. Apparently, the law schools of today, in many respects, resemble the kindergartens of my school days. Something has happened in our society to prolong the carefree, early childhoods of our students to an astonishing degree. Perhaps Cambridge is also encountering this phenomenon, and this lone professor, at the risk of upsetting students’ “safe spaces,” is trying to do what he can to reverse the effect.

      1. B. McLeod

        Of course, they were among the few “safe spaces” men were left, at least in the day when men were actually men. I was a “summer starter” in law school, and although the summers were oppressively fast-paced, I think all of my fellow students made it on to Fall Semester. In the Fall, once all the students came back, it was a chore to move through the herd between classes. The pace was slower, but there were six times as many classes, and every professor assigned work as though his or her class was the only class students had to deal with. Anyway, to connect this up, early in the morning on the first day of final exams for Fall Semester, I stepped into the lowest floor Men’s room to find that one of the two stalls was locked and occupied by a colleague conspicuously smoking pot, while the other was locked and occupied by a colleague violently ill and vomiting up whatever he had recently consumed.

        So, you do get a sense in the Men’s room as to how things may be going. I later learned that one of my classmates who had made it through his summer classes unscathed had lost his nerve and left for California that morning, rather than attempting his Fall exams. Dan Rosales was his name, and he had worked in interpretive roles for California defense firms, and felt like he could do what they were doing, better. Also, he knew where to shop for food (important to me in those days, when I was pinching pennies). He always seemed to me like a person who should be a lawyer, until that very day when he lost his nerve. Sometimes, I wonder what happened to him, and whether he tried again and made it.

        1. SHG Post author

          I remember my outrage as a law student about profs combined assigning more work than one could possibly do, as if each course was the only course. It stood the test of time, when judges demanded overnight memos as if theirs was my only case.

          Resilience isn’t about who can make up the best excuse or best rationalize why his failure wasn’t his fault. It’s about bouncing back from adversity, which will bite you in the ass no matter what you do, and succeeding anyway. At least Dan Rosales knew to run.

          1. B. McLeod

            It was a day of unbalanced demands, but most of us met them, and with judges, of course, it has to be the same. I suppose that those among the faculty who had touched the elephant felt they were getting us ready. I felt bad about Dan, because it seemed to me that he had that certain sense of being a fiduciary, which law school does not teach and which the bar does not test for. If he never went on to become a lawyer, I hope he went back to doing what he could as an interpreter, perhaps a little the wiser, and able to inform his employers better.

  5. Lee

    Oh, my.

    So all those years I was busting my ass to impress on my three sons the necessity for, and value of, hard work, I was damaging them emotionally? Boo hoo.

    I suppose now I will have to give back my “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt and live in shame for the rest of my life for the horrible damage I’ve done to their psyches. 😉

  6. Bruce Godfrey

    Life is hard, and death is long. Getting confused on either point leads to unhappiness and blown opportunities.

    When I was in high school, my scholarship fund told me, more or less – keep a B+ average or better or we are pulling the money, you can go to public school. This required me to bust my ass if I wanted to keep my Catholic school scholarship. I was 14. Wasn’t easy; I had a couple poor grades early, but righted the ship.

    Toughest grader in the school was Br. Ron Crabtree, a monk who had taken vows of poverty and so was unfirable and who did not give a [deleted]. His biology class gave us 9th graders on day 1 a list of Greek and Latin suffixes and prefixes, three pages, two columns. Told us the quiz was the next day and it was. Half flunked. Grade inflation my ass – he gave one B+ for the semester and the rest C+ and down. I got one of the C+s, to my pride.

    Graduated 2/165 or so in my class. Guy who graduated first went to Princeton with me and is now teaching law in St. Louis. He was smarter but his work ethic was (I believe) also better.

    14 is a fine age to tell a young man to bust his ass at the books. At that age, Viet Cong militiamen were shooting at the 18-year-old privates in my father’s Army base. I had it easy, though I was too damn stupid to realize it fully. As for Cambridge, I hope Ron Crabtree is still alive and can co-teach with Prof. Terentjev next semester; those snowflakes need it.

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