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Question 155: Must a student do his best in every subject?

My sister, Anne, and I talked about some of the moral questions that came up in the course she took with you last year. Now I have a question you might be interested in, and Anne has helped me write it up for you.

I am beginning high school at St. Benet’s Prep. My dad is an engineer, and I want to be one too. Dad thinks I can do it, and that I should try to get into one of the top engineering schools. For me to do that, my grades and aptitude test scores will have to be very good, but my math and science grades and math aptitude score will have to be almost perfect. They grade hard at St. Benet’s, and hardly anybody gets an A in every subject. Math and science are easy for me, but I’m afraid that if I go all out on other subjects, my record might not be good enough for the top engineering schools. I have been planning to do my best in math and science, and to work for a B or a B+ in everything else.

At freshman orientation this morning the headmaster talked about studying. His main point was that we should do our best in every subject. He said one of the biggest mistakes students make is not doing their best in subjects they find difficult or think unimportant. He told us that if we did that we would be cheating our parents by wasting part of the tuition they pay and cheating ourselves by wasting part of the chance St. Benet’s offers to build a solid foundation for our future lives. He said the young man who wastes any part of that chance is like a carpenter building a vacation home for himself in a dry climate, who does less than his best putting in the drainage around the footings. Because the job involves masonry, it is difficult for the carpenter; and because the site is so dry, the drainage does not seem very important. But just because the carpenter finds masonry difficult, the headmaster said, he should try twice as hard to do his best with the drainage, remembering that a house without adequate drainage eventually will be undermined by the heavy rains that fall occasionally even in the desert.

All that makes sense. Even if I will not need other subjects as much as math and science, my whole record must be very good, and I will not get the grades I need in some other subjects unless I work even harder on them than on math and science. But will I be cheating my parents and myself if I do not go all out on those other subjects?


This question calls for help in making a sound judgment about allocating effort to different subjects. Because students’ duties flow primarily from the good they can hope to realize by developing their gifts, the questioner can be helped by clarifying that good. At least three points should be made. First, as students embark on any phase of their education, the good to be realized by developing their gifts remains obscure. The earlier the phase, the greater the obscurity. Second, that good includes benefits, to the students themselves and others, not only of their future professional work but of carrying out other elements of their vocation. Third, no matter what else students are called to, they are called to be students, and should not ignore or undervalue the immediate benefits to be anticipated in doing good work as students. Taking these clarifications into account, the questioner should judge whether his responsibility to prepare for a career as an engineer warrants his planned allocation of effort.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Accepting the requirement that students do their best in every subject as sound, you are wondering whether you would violate it by settling for grades of B or B+ in subjects other than mathematics and science. Of course, many students simply tend to neglect subjects they enjoy less. But you make it clear that you are conscientious and have no intention of neglecting the other subjects, though you find them more difficult and/or consider them less important. So, you present a real moral question well worth trying to answer.

“Do your best in every subject” might be taken to mean: In every subject do all you might if you had no other responsibility to fulfill. But that would be absurd, so it cannot be what the headmaster meant. He plainly thinks hard work on every subject is necessary for your education as a whole, and you are not questioning that. So, I take for granted that you are prepared to do what you can in each subject without slighting your other responsibilities.

Of course, you have many responsibilities that do not pertain to your life as a student: those bearing on religion, civic life, family, and friendships; those regarding your own health and well-being; and still others, such as occasionally helping a stranger in need. I shall take it for granted that you will fulfill those responsibilities—which include appropriate rest and recreation—and know how to balance them with the responsibilities pertaining to your life as a student. Therefore, your question can be restated: If you do not go all out on subjects other than mathematics and science, will you violate your responsibility to strive to master every subject? To help you answer this question, I shall try to clarify the latter responsibility.

I shall not argue, however, either that you should seek similar grades in every subject or that you may settle for grades of B and B+ in subjects other than mathematics and science. At best, grades only signify teachers’ judgments about students’ achievement in comparison with one another, and discussing grades will not explain why you should try to achieve anything. You do owe it to your parents and teachers to make good use of the opportunity they are giving you, but only because it is an opportunity for something inherently worthwhile: the good you can realize by developing your talents. Having received your talents from God so as to realize that good, you owe it to him to develop them (see Mt 25.14–30). Therefore, you will better understand your responsibility as a student by reflecting on the fruit to be anticipated from your education. I propose three points for your reflection.

First, at present you are not in a position to appreciate or even foresee many, perhaps most, of the benefits that will accrue from your education for yourself and others. You almost certainly have talents of which you are not yet aware, and you surely have many of which you are only imperfectly aware. You have some idea how you might exercise some talents of which you are more or less conscious, but that possibility will become clearer as your education proceeds, and new opportunities probably will emerge or at least will come to your attention.

Second, no matter what you do, your desire to become an engineer could be frustrated, and proficiency in mathematics and science may turn out not to be as important for you as you now suppose. If you do become an engineer, doing the work well will involve using talents, such as the ability to communicate, developed mainly by studying other subjects. Moreover, not all the benefits to be anticipated from your education will be realized in and through your work. God has blessed you with faith, citizenship, and membership in your family; perhaps he will call you to be a husband and a father. He certainly wants you to be an active Catholic, citizen, and family member; and if you marry and have children, he will want you to lead your own family. You should develop your talents to carry out all these roles, and subjects other than mathematics and science will be important for that purpose.

Third, some of the good fruit of education becomes available and can be enjoyed at once. You should not study now only for the sake of what that will enable you to do later but also for the benefits, for yourself and others, of being a good student. Knowledge of God’s creation and appreciation of the good and beautiful things human beings have made are valuable in themselves, and your preparatory school years can greatly enrich you in that knowledge and appreciation. Moreover, a good student’s work, like all work, is good in itself (see LCL, 754–58); the self-discipline and exercise of other virtues involved are good in themselves; the fellowship and cooperation with teachers and other students are good in themselves. Accepting the work as your present vocation, doing it as a witness to your faith, offering it in the Eucharist with Jesus’ sacrifice, and so making it available as material for the kingdom (see GS 38–39)—all these are good in themselves.

These three reflections make it clear that you should expect extremely rich and varied fruit from your education. You are not yet in a position to appreciate or even clearly foresee much of it. As you go on with your education, the benefits received and to be anticipated will gradually become clearer but always will remain somewhat obscure. Indeed, only toward the end of a good life, if even then, can one know, by looking back, what one received and achieved, and appreciate the value of one’s education. Of course, despite the obscurity, eventually you will have to make commitments and concentrate your studies more and more narrowly. You will be in a much better position to do this, however, as you learn more about your gifts and the opportunities for using them by further developing and experimenting with them.

These reflections do not conclusively show that not going all out on subjects other than mathematics and science would violate the norm that students should do their best in every subject (assuming a reasonable understanding of the norm—one that takes their other responsibilities into account). Only you can judge when the time is right to begin focusing your efforts to prepare for the specific kind of work you will do. In making that judgment, however, consider the whole range of benefits at stake and keep in mind the inevitable and irrevocable sacrifice of other benefits that any decision to prepare for a specific kind of work entails.

In making such judgments and others regarding their education, many students begin by considering what they want in life. Then they try to calculate which available option is likely to yield more of what they want. Faithful Christians, seeking first the kingdom, begin by considering what God wants; they try to discern what he is calling them to, not only for their own fulfillment but as service to others (see LCL, 113–29). Therefore, in deciding whether it is time to begin focusing your efforts, gather all the relevant information, talk the problem over with those who can help you think it through, rouse your faith, ask for the light of the Holy Spirit, consider everything prayerfully, make your judgment, and concentrate your effort or not, as seems right. That will be doing your best in every subject.