So I’m Taking a Layup


Baker Library — not a place to live

So I’m taking my first “layup” class at Dartmouth this term. Layup classes are also sometimes called “gut” classes. The gist is that they are classes in which scoring a perfect A will be markedly easier than doing so in other classes. My decision to do this is because I am currently taking two other challenging courses, and am not particularly interested in living in the library this spring.

Taking the layup class has not only taught me a surprising amount about its subject matter (layups aren’t just as easy as they sound) but it has also taught me a lot about the pervasive psychology of a subculture that prides itself on “gaming” the system. These classes, which are massively popular and reach enrollments of 100-200 students — pretty unique at colleges that like to tout their 1:8 faculty ratios — fester intellectual sterility and reward increasingly innovative means of getting an A without actually learning.

People sometimes don’t like work; this is not in any way unnatural, and smart people will often find the least tiresome way to succeed. But the way they behave and succeed must be informed by their notions of what success actually is.

The obvious, though complicated, moral risk is that students at prestigious schools — students who were selected to attend those schools for their love of learning — will completely shatter their presumably rigorous, pre-existing moral compasses to score highly in classes they don’t even care about because the pressure, both external and internal, to succeed is ultimately more powerful than their belief in their abilities.

I’ll interrupt with a brief personal anecdote— I feel this pressure acutely. My freshman year at college I faced a lot of anxiety, especially when I wasn’t getting A’s like I did in high school. Somehow this idea that anything other than a 4.0 GPA and a job at Bain Capital would relegate me to a life of painful, disappointing mediocrity and failure had germinated in my mind, and began eating away at my confidence, my happiness, but most terrifying, my ability to make decisions independently from the whole.

Unlike those who decide to cheat, this little story has a happy academic ending; I bought a study skills book and starting focusing on developing professor relationships, and I can say I’m doing much better in my classes. But the anxiety didn’t leave. I just know how to function with it. I was not an anxious person before college, and I think the likelihood of me having developed some anxiety disorder while here is slim; rather I think it is something nefarious, and latent in the culture that contributes to my anxiety and to the anxiety of students in general.

Now, to open it back up to the realm of higher education: what is the sum of the collective emotional crucibles that young members of the American elite silently face as they try to conform to narrowing definitions of success while also struggling to maintain some stake in their own personal integrity? I imagine Deresiewicz recently addressed this cultural problem in his bestselling Excellent Sheep, but I intentionally avoided reading the book.

What is it about the idea of possessing a surfeit of A’s, then dollars, then prestige, that occludes our worldviews and why is it so hard to discuss, confront, or vanquish? Why would the most privileged group of people adopt such a laconic moral vocabulary by which they could narrow their self-conceptions?

Though I hold no authority to answer these questions, but a certain phrase from a book I’ve read helps explains the reason for the questions. In Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, an English world-travelling hunter decides to take down a dictator in Eastern Europe. Thwarted, captured, and tortured, he calls on his experience at a British boarding school to cope with the gruesome physical ordeal. He says, “I hold no brief for the pre-war Spartan training of the English upper class… since in the ordinary affairs of life it is not of the slightest value to anyone; but it is of use on the admittedly rare occasions when one needs a higher degree of physical endurance…the initiation ceremonies of the tribal English continue for the ten years of education. We torture a boy’s spirit rather than his body.”