Sunday, April 13, 2014
Alternative answer to exam question stands up to scrutiny
Years ago, when N.W., a reader in the Midwest, attended a liberal arts college, she and a friend decided to meet one of their distribution requirements by taking an introductory religion course focusing on nonwestern religions. It was, she writes, an overview course describing the beliefs and practices of "pretty much every other religion besides Judaism and Christianity."
When they sat down to their final examination, one of the long essay questions the professor posed "added some color" to the typically staid compare-and-contrast questions often used to test students' knowledge of what they've learned during the semester.
"The essay question posed a hypothetical," N.W. writes. "If your personal faith was outlawed, which of the faiths we covered during the course would you join?" The professor specified that students show their knowledge of at least three of the religions covered over the course of the semester in their answers.
After they finished the exam, N.W. and her friend talked about the question over lunch in the school cafeteria.
"I took it as an intellectual challenge and made a choice, as did the vast majority of my classmates," N.W. writes. But her friend, who was "far more deeply religious," chose to answer the question differently.
She chose to go the route of "persecuted religions the world over," writes N.W. "Go underground."
"I understood her choice," N.W. writes. "She didn't want to even consider losing her faith as part of a thought experiment."
N.W. asked her friend if she'd followed the instructions to discuss three of the religions they'd covered in the class in her answer. She told N.W. that, indeed, she had.
N.W. wonders if it was right to pass her friend, even if she didn't directly give an alternative religion as an answer to the professor's question?
In dealing with acts that show integrity, I often refer back to Stephen Carter's delineation of the three steps needed to act with integrity, outlined in his book, Integrity (Basic Books, 1996). The first step requires discerning the issue. The second step requires acting on what you discern. The final step is stating openly what you've done and why.
In writing the response she did, N.W.'s friend certainly worked to discern the issue. She thought through the question carefully and decided that, theoretically, choosing an alternative religion, even for the sake of getting a good grade on an exam, was unacceptable. She acted by writing the answer she did and articulating the reasons for her choice.
N.W.'s friend indeed showed integrity. Even though some of her classmates might have thought otherwise, the friend did give a direct answer to the professor's question. "None, and here's why" responds to the essay question posed, as long as she supported her answer with a clear understanding of the material covered in class.
The right thing was for N.W.'s friend to answer the question fully and with understanding and integrity, all of which she did. Although she never revealed the specific grade she received on the final, she did pass. Any teacher worth his or her salt welcomes a student who shows comprehension, critical thinking...and a bit of gumption.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin