the instrumentalist chain

Earlier I wrote of goods that can’t be aimed at directly, and here’s another example of that.

Like all college teachers, I have heard many times — many, many times — more times than I can count — something along these lines: If I don’t get an A in your class then I won’t be able to get into medical school [or law school, or business school, or engineering school, or dental school] so just tell me what I need to do to get that A.

Here’s how I usually respond:

First, I understand and sympathize with your anxiety, but please don’t say that. Whether you mean it to or not, it sounds manipulative. (“If all my dreams are crushed it’ll be your fault!”) And teachers are no exception to the general rule that most people don’t like feeling manipulated and will often do the opposite of what they think others are trying to get them to do.

But second, and more important for our purposes, you’re really not thinking of this problem in the right way. The problem is not I’m getting a lower grade than I want, the problem is I’m not doing excellent work. Your grade is only a marker or token of the quality of your work. You can’t get a better grade by focusing on getting a better grade. Your grades will improve when your work improves.

This is the pitfall of all instrumentalist thinking — even when it’s properly instrumentalist. By which I mean that there are some things it’s perfectly okay to think of as means to other ends. I exercise so I can be healthier: if I don’t love exercise in itself and for itself, that’s not a problem — unless I fail to pay sufficient attention to what I’m doing when I exercise that in the end I don’t improve my health as much as I want. The way for me to fix that is to start focusing on the exercise itself. Wanting ever more intensely to be super-healthy doesn’t actually help me.

Many of my students don’t care about the quality of the work they’re doing. They care about the grades they get, and they care about grades because the grades will determine whether they get into med school, and they care about getting into med school because that will determine whether they get to be doctors, and they want to be doctors because … well, who am I to judge? My point here is just that there’s a lengthy chain of instrumentalist motivation here, acts that are meaningful only because they lead to other acts that are only meaningful because they lead to still other acts, in regressive links that I can’t see the end of. But the only way people are ever going to get to their goal, whatever that happens to be, is by starting to care about the work they’re doing today.