Did you hear the story about the professor and his dumb-dumb lazy kids?
It’s pretty stunning — but not because of the kids. It’s because of how quick people are to blame young people for faults that are not their own.
Let’s take a closer look. Here’s the story:
That was one of many, many articles about the situation. They were all prompted by this Facebook post, where a professor explained the trick he’d played on his students:
In short: The cash prize was hidden “in my syllabus,” the professor wrote — and because nobody claimed the prize, it seems clear that nobody read the syllabus.
The world’s conclusion: Kids today are so lazy!!!
“None of these stories actually talk about this supposedly obvious clue, which seems odd, given no one claimed the supposedly easy-to-find cash prize,” writes another professor, Kevin Gannon, in a truly fantastic Twitter thread.
Gannon dug in to learn more. Let’s go along for the ride.
First, we must ask: What is this “syllabus”? It sounds important! The average person might assume it contains the valuable information for the class, including all the readings and instructions.
But Gannon took a look at the actual syllabus and clue in question, and here it is:
What is this thing?
He explains: “Almost every institution has common syllabus statements—the policy boilerplate everyone's required to include in their course syllabi. Instructors usually download it from the uni website and append it to the syllabi they've created, often with a heading like ‘univ policies’”
This means that, while this one particular professor has decided to test whether his students read the syllabus, other professors have set an expectation that nobody has to read it. Gannon equates this text to the “cookies agreement you click on a website before you get to browse.“ Which is to say: It is there, but it is commonly ignored.
Gannon hits this home:
And also, Gannon takes a close look at the wording of this supposedly easy clue to find $50. Look closely:
“Does this look like free money to you?” Gannon asked. “Or a somewhat creepy offer to share a locker? How many people would read this and think ‘that dude effed up his copy and paste?’”
His conclusion: “So the viral story about buffoonish college students is actually...kinda not that at all? It's not an invitation to free money that's RIGHT THERE YOU FOOLS, it's a vaguely-phrased weird flex from a prof who wanted to do a Facebook stunt and look like the Clever Boy.”
But everyone missed this because of two reasons:
Internet reporting is often fast and sloppy.
We are extremely, embarrassingly prone to believe the worst of young people. We accuse them of being lazy and entitled, without for a moment remembering that the exact same accusations were leveled at us when we were the young generation.
I once went searching through history to see how far back this pattern goes. The answer: Older generations have dismissed or demonized younger generations at least as far back as Ancient Rome, and surely further.
And why do we do it? My favorite answer came from the world of medieval land disputes.
In the middle ages, land was everything: It was the source of your wealth and status. Local rules would also dictate when that land was to be passed down from a parent to a child. But sometimes, when the appointed time came, the parents would not pass the land to their child. Then it would end up in court.
“A child is a reminder of mortality. Once you have a child, you can get displaced,” he said. “So when you dismiss children — when you say that they are not living up to the standards of the older generation — part of what you're saying is that this child cannot replace me. This child isn't good enough to replace me. I am in some sense irreplaceable. I've conquered my mortality in that way. I have shown that I am too important to be replaced by this person whose basic job in the world is to replace me. And that's the anxiety that comes with these lawsuits about land. Because once the child gains the land, the child has replaced the parent.”
Why are we eager to believe that a classroom full of college students are so lazy, and so dumb, that they’d miss something as glaring as the instructions to a $50 bill that’s right there in front of them? Because it makes them less threatening. It gives us comfort that we will be needed for longer.
But as we near the end of this year, and think about the passing of time, I’d like to offer a different way of looking at this:
What if our greatest accomplishment is to simply use our time wisely, to tend to our land as best we can, and then to support the people who will one day take that land over? What if we stopped believing the worst in those people, and instead believed the best in them, and supported and collaborated with them, and welcomed them in?
We’d all be better off that way, I think. And by avoiding silly stories like the professor and the hidden $50, we’d save ourselves a lot of embarrassment, too.
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Cover credit: Kenyon Wilson