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No. 1322:
Beating the System?

Today, some thoughts about beating the system. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You'd better read this, says my wife, handing me an article from a back issue of The New York Times. I finish what I'm doing, then sit down to read it. When I do, all kinds of alarm bells go off.

It's about a University of Nevada student, Eric Coyle. Two and a half years ago, Coyle was finishing an undistinguished four years with a 2.57 GPA. Then he interned in a senatorial office and came away knowing he wanted to change the world. His first step would be law school, and that would mean a far better academic record than his. What Coyle did next was straight off the wall.

Instead of finishing his degree, he went back to the catalog and began taking courses for all kinds of degree programs. Instead of finishing in four years with one degree, he finished five college degrees in only six years. He amassed 340 credit hours with a grade-point average of 3.70. His degrees are in political science, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, and communications. Coyle has taken as many as 64 credits in one semester, which qualifies as absurd. He's also been accepted into seven fine law schools.

Naturally, his university is less than delighted. The provost feels that Coyle has mocked the academic process. And in one sense he has. But my wife gave me this article for a reason. She'd been an ordinary high-school student until she struck an agreement with her father. "Will you buy me a horse if I can go back and get all A's?" "Sure," he said, little imagining she'd do it. For her, Coyle's story is about our ability to find a focus in our lives.

My version of the story took place when I was a failing high-school dyslexic. I took a course in drafting and fell in love with the crisp clean drawings flowing from my pen. I did three years work that semester. Then the principal decided I could receive credit for only one semester. So I went to the school superintendent. He saw just a kid with a lot of failing grades and told me I had by no stretch of the mind done three years' work. If I had, it would (and I quote) "have made a monkey of the whole system."

I was only 16 but old enough to know I'd reaped the benefits of the work, and I was no longer the failure I thought I was. The credit didn't really matter. Coyle's provost was right. You don't digest 16 years of work in just two. You don't chew what you've learned, but Coyle has left with far more grist to chew upon than other students have.

Coyle made his point -- to himself and to the law schools that've welcomed him. While academics argue over what he did or didn't learn, he's made it crystal clear that we can change if we set about to. Coyle puts it far more modestly; "I have fun going to school. ... I'm not this smart guy. But I got motivated."

The longer I live, the surer I am that none of us is that much smarter than the next person. But some of us do get motivated.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Honan, W. H., From Academic Weakling to Super Student. New York Times EDUCATION, Wed. May 6, 1998, p. A25.


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