An 'A' for Effort

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

One of the key aspects of the world of business is the crucial importance of the bottom line. And that is the way it should be. The primary—and some would argue, only—goal of business is to make money, or as Milton Friedman famously noted, “the business of business is business”. It is not the role of the private, profit-driven sector to address social needs, crucial as they may be. That is the role of government, private philanthropy and the non-profit sector. The only proper limitation on moneymaking is the law.

Classical Jewish teachings would tend to agree, with the possible caveat that, at times, one must go beyond the letter of the law when—in a given situation—the law would be unable to address an ethical imperative. The amount of effort extended to achieve success (or lack thereof) is irrelevant from a business perspective. It is results—or, shall we say, the bottom line—that matters.

However, in the realm of religious growth, it is effort, not outcomes, that matter. G-d demands we give it our best, but a person who has internalized his faith in G-d understands that results are often out of our control, and it is our efforts that truly count. This distinction, while true in theory, often has little practical application. Poor results in every field may be the result of great but misdirected efforts. If we can—and usually, we can—produce better religious growth by refocusing our efforts, we must do so, and not accept effort as a measure of success.

It is most unfortunate, tragic even, that many charitable organizations are run without the tools of the modern business world. Charities should not be a place where poor performance is tolerated. In fact, they likely have a greater obligation to ensure high standards are being met, as wasted efficiency means that it is the most needy who stand to suffer. At least in the private sector, business inefficiency leads to the loss of “only” private money.

I was thinking of this theoretical dichotomy between effort and results when reading about the growing debate over the University of Manitoba’s award of a Ph.D. in Mathematics to someone who twice failed a final examination. The student—or shall we say Dr.?—has exam stress disorder, and finds it difficult to demonstrate his true ability on exams. It was this mitigating factor that led the university to award him his doctorate, arguing that he is, in fact, a most “exceptional student”. The university has suspended without pay an outspoken professor who has strongly protested the granting of such a degree.

It seems to me that the university has confused these two realms. A Ph.D. is granted for accomplishment, not effort. While the failure may be caused by a legitimate disorder, that does not change the fact that he failed the exam.

Had such an approach originated in a yeshiva, it would have been at least understandable. A yeshiva is a place where personal growth is primary and thus, honest effort is to be rewarded. In truth, such an approach was never common in the great 19th-century European yeshivot, where intellectual achievement (even elitism) was the norm. Coming from a university, such a position is rather startling. Universities are (meant to be) centers for the development of critical thought, where academic freedom is supreme and personal moral choices are irrelevant. Universities pride themselves in ability to distinguish between the attainment of knowledge and the use of that knowledge in one’s life. After all, a professor of moral philosophy need not actually live by any recognizable moral code. Finding alternate methods of evaluation may be understandable, even commendable, but would seem to have no place in awarding a doctorate.