The Rise of Cutting Corners

Just about 15 years ago, during college days in Pennsylvania, I found the secret place. It was a signless storefront off campus where they sold one thing: notes from college courses. Not just any course notes, but wonderfully meticulous notes taken by responsible students in class. Notes were transcribed, cleaned up, and sold for a reasonable amount.

The official explanation for the business was to provide equal opportunity for students who had to miss a class. But it was no secret: everyone knew. This store was in the business of selling free passes.

Down With Dumb

While cutting corners was acceptable in college, this kind of corner cutting has traditionally been discouraged. Taking “the easy way” has had negative connotations—it is not a virtue that Americans, and particularly New Yorkers, value. Or at least I thought so.

Many For Dummies products no longer include a book. They’re not even pretending to teach you; they’ll just do it for you.

Getting away with things has been a recent quiet phenomenon, in large part due to the success of the For Dummies series. Starting with DOS for Dummies in 1991, this series seems to be prospering, demystifying a growing number of daily activities. A recent trip to my very own supermarket in Brooklyn revealed an aisle selling Hangers for Dummies and Pots and Pans for Dummies. And the list goes on and on and on and on. Do we really need this much help?

There’s something about the series that’s always connoted cheating to me. Sure, the series purports itself to be an easy explanation for the layperson. But just like the college notes store, everyone knows For Dummies is about getting away with something. What happened to the diligence of learning something ourselves? Are we really this comfortable with playing dumb?

The Long Way

Cutting corners is not a bad or wrong concept. And For Dummies is just one example of fostering this ideal. Shortcutting or offloading knowledge onto other people or systems is necessary in many cases. We rely on mobile devices to store phone numbers; we rely on our RSS readers to remind us which websites we like to read; bookmarks to remember website addresses; our spouses or partners to remember birthdays and anniversaries. But when the shortcuts result in missing knowledge that would be useful to us — when we rely on the easy way out simply because we can — we may be cheating ourselves out of a full understanding. We may only be seeing a part of the story.

There is, of course, a difference between cutting corners and efficiency. I’m all for efficiency-promoting tools like TextExpander, Skitch, and even Peel. But these are time-saving tools rather than knowledge-cutting tools. There’s a big difference. If we keep looking for ways to cut corners in the things should be learning and practicing, what will we be left with?

There’s something to be said for doing things the hard way. Something to be said for celebrating Smart.