The 1967 movie How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is typical 1960s satire. It suggests that success only requires cutting corners, chumming up to the right people, lying, cheating and choosing the unethical path whenever it appears.
This might be true in organizations like the World Wide Wicket Company, in which this fictional indulgence (based on a musical, based on a 1952 book by Shepherd Mead) is set.
But it won’t work in school. A little corner-cutting may give you an edge here and there – but if you want to do well in school, you’d better be prepared to pay attention, study and keep at it.
Kindergarten and Grade 1 are where we learn how to behave in a classroom and get along with others. We’re introduced to the joys of organized learning with simple but hugely important stuff like numbers, the alphabet and paying attention.
These fundamentals are really fundamental – if we don’t master numbers and letters, we’re never going to be able to do even simple sums or progress beyond word recognition in reading.
And that, in a nutshell, is how all school learning is put together: it grows, like a great tree, on progressive layers and branches of learning that need to be grasped, mastered and integrated in order to make sense of the next level.
That’s how it goes, from Grade 1 to grad school, layer upon layer, with branches into new domains of knowledge, each offering different ways of seeing and understanding the world and interesting things in it. Each layer and branch builds on the ones underlying it all the way back to numbers, letters and paying attention.
That’s why you can’t succeed in school unless you really try, because you have to learn in order to understand. To make real progress rather than pretend progress, you have to climb the tree of learning by stepping on solid accomplishments. And that takes focus, discipline and stick-to-it-ness.
That makes cheating not only stupid but dangerous. Not because of the risk of being caught, but because you really do need to know the stuff on the test if you want to benefit from passing it. If you cheat, you’ll either get caught or have to live with the consequences of not actually knowing what you’re supposed to know. This will come back to bite you sooner or later, causing embarrassment, and damaging your reputation, life and career, perhaps leading to public failure.
Success on important exams tells the world that you have mastered valuable knowledge, and you are ready to study and learn at the next level. Cheating is the same as lying about what you know and what you are capable of.
Learning what needs to be learned to make it to the next level is not always easy. Much of what needs to be learned beyond the primary grades is challenging. For those of us not talented in particular fields, it can be really difficult.
There’s little to be gained by sugar-coating this reality. Despite what some may say, not all learning can be made easy and school is not always fun. In the early years, yes, much of what goes on is fun. And there are certainly many opportunities for enjoyment in school and classroom life, especially if one has good teachers. But let’s not kid ourselves and others by pretending that learning algebra, calculus and other demanding material is fun. It’s hard work.
Yet learning difficult material is satisfying in itself. Mastering the knowledge and skills taught in middle, high school and beyond can be innately rewarding. It builds satisfaction and pride. It yields a sense of accomplishment that is far more rewarding than making progress without trying.
Most rewarding of all is that learning is something we ultimately do by ourself and for ourselves. Others help. Parents and friends are important; good teachers invaluable. Ultimately, though, learning is a personal accomplishment, a private success that makes all the effort worthwhile. When we succeed in learning something challenging, we know we’ve done well. We know we’re ready for the next level. We’re better prepared to really succeed in life.
And we know we didn’t cut any corners.
Derek J. Allison is professor emeritus, Western University, Ontario. He writes on education and social issues.