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Why Ask Why?

Claim:   A philosophy professor gives a final exam consisting entirely of a single word: "Why?" One student answers "Why not?" and receives an 'A'.

LEGEND

Variations:
  • In a different version of this legend one student receives a top grade for responding simply "Because."
  • Another version involves a philosophy instructor who, for a final examination, places a chair at the front of the room and challenges the class to prove it exists. One student receives an 'A' for writing "What chair?"
  • Yet another similar legend has a professor ask his class to define 'courage.' The highest grade is awarded to the student who hands in his exam after writing nothing more than "This is." (In some variations of this version, the student who receives the top mark is the one who turns in a blank sheet of paper.)
Origins:   On one level, this tale could be seen as a sort of braggadocio legend: a professor presents his class with an exceedingly difficult question to answer
for their final exam, and the student who has the nerve to provide a clever, simple answer receives an easy 'A' on the test. (This point is made even more explicitly in the variant where the class is asked to define 'courage.') Another possible interpretation of this legend is as a wry commentary on the sciolism of academia. What is a more profound subject for the true scholar to contemplate, after all, than the basic question of meaning and existence? The student's flippant response (and his receiving a top mark for same) underscores the notion that a 'solid education' is sometimes an ornately decorated empty shell.

Last updated:   20 June 2011

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (p. 286).

    Reader's Digest.   "Campus Comedy."
    March 1981   (p. 43).