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
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
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