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Carrots and Sticks

Last week I listed the three “Free Response” AP questions. I was delegated to read the third one—all week long. But it was a good question and I’d like to share it with you.

It is based on a true-life incident. A couple of years ago a high school student wrote to Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” columnist in The New York Times Magazine. This student’s school was always having charity drives of one sort or another. To encourage the spirit of giving, some teachers offered bonus grade points depending on the number of canned goods brought in, or whatever. Some had questioned this practice as “undermining the value of charity as a selfless act.” What did Mr. Cohen think? Is it ok to trade a few cans of beans for a better grade?

What do you think? I had seven days to think about it, and back here in Albuquerque I find myself still thinking about it.

The first thing one discovers is that high schools truly are hotbeds of benevolence these days. There are canned goods drives and clothing drives without end. If these kids can be believed, the hungry have been fed and the naked clothed 20 times over! Then there are Red Cross blood drives. And they serve their time in soup kitchens and in nursing homes. These good works are abetted with carrots—bonus points, pizza parties, casual dress days—and with sticks—without X hours of community service, you don’t graduate.

What adds an interesting fillip to the question, of course, is the nature of this particular incentive, i.e., getting one’s grade jacked up. In fact, Mr. Cohen saw no real problem with incentives like pizza parties but did think that academics should be kept off the table: donating some old clothes should not make me appear to be better at geometry than I really am. The better students did see this distinction right off. Some—we’ll call them the realists—were not a whit bothered. The end famously justified the means and if somebody gets a hot meal and I get a B+ instead of a B, well, hey, that’s a win-win situation! Others—the idealists—were appalled at the idea not only of grade jacking but of any incentives at all. If I need the prospect of free pizza to behave altruistically, have I, in fact, behaved altruistically? Being bribed into goodness troubled some of them a lot.

And then, some balked at grade jacking (free pizza was ok) because it raised an equal opportunity issue. A rich kid could bring in a whole case of Campbell’s soup and, in effect, buy his way to an A, while a poor kid got screwed: buying grades was ok as long as everybody got the same shot! It might be worth mentioning that a group reward like a pizza party gets around this sticky issue. But then you might have grumbling from the ones who pulled the most weight, smirks from the slackers, and a bad aftertaste all around.

Are incentives an effective way to jump start goodness, or are they addictive? Some argued that since we have been given incentives since we were in diapers, we might as well try them to jump-start our better impulses. In this rosy scenario, incentives get us giving and the act of giving gives us such a warm fuzzy feeling that pretty soon altruism becomes second nature to us—we no longer need pizza parties. Others begged to differ. Once an addict always an addict—we will never learn to give without the tax write-off or the free Three Tenors video. Or at best our giving will be pinched and grudging, a mockery of charity. I suppose that either of these outcomes is possible, but which outcome really is anybody’s guess.

More than one student mentioned heaven and hell as the ultimate carrot and stick! (Yes, it does get you thinking.) If incentives run this deep in our marrow, can we ever outgrow them? Some students riffed on what causes might be seen as appropriate and what not. My good cause—Gay Pride, for example—might be your abomination, so should public institutions be in this business in the first place? It has been said that you can’t legislate morality. Should we be in the business of trying to make folks better? And when does trying become forcing?

Want more? Ok. The compulsory service component ties in with the view of many colleges and universities nowadays that academic excellence (or diversity, or demographics, or you-name-it) is no longer enough. In other words, those fifty hours of community service could make the difference between admission to Podunk State or Dartmouth. So are you really ladling all that soup out of the goodness of your heart or because you want to be on a fast track to the Ivy League? What is your true motive, and how might it taint your charity? Finally—and I think this really is a “finally”—there are those who realize that NO charitable endeavor is free from incentives! At the least you will have hope that God is looking more kindly on your humble efforts (see above, “heaven”); at best you will get juiced with that old spiritual frisson for having done a “selfless” act. Virtue, as they say, is its own reward, and the best students finally come a cropper on this paradox.

Talk about a vexed question. I think we all want our young people to mature into caring, concerned, and giving adults. But are carrots and sticks the way to get there? I’d give worlds to know.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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