HUNT COLUMN: I would prefer not to?

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, October 12, 2022

By Cathy Hunt
Troup County School Board Chairwoman

One of my favorite nineteenth-century American short stories is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville. The title character is a pale, quiet young man whom the narrator, a successful businessman, hires as an additional clerk when his two regulars can’t keep up with the increasing workload.

Bartleby is paid to copy important documents by hand (no Xerox machines in those days!), and at first his output is tremendous and perfect. But there comes a day when the boss finds Bartleby sitting listlessly at his desk doing nothing. Being a kind-hearted man, the boss wonders if Bartleby is ill, and when the answer is no, Bartleby is instructed to please get on with his work. The young clerk’s answer is “I would prefer not to.”

Hoping this is just a phase, the boss gives him time to pull himself together. But Bartleby continues to sit at his desk day after day staring out a window at a brick wall. The boss tries different motivational tools to get Bartleby to be productive and earn his wages, but Bartleby says only, “I would prefer not to.” Finally the boss dismisses Bartleby from his job and asks him to leave the building. You can guess what the clerk’s response is. 

The employer then realizes that Bartleby never leaves the building; he has been staying there at night. The boss feels so sorry for the weird young man that his tender heart won’t let him summon the police. Finally, at his wit’s end, the boss leases an office in another building and moves everything and everyone to the new location, leaving Bartleby alone in the empty rooms.

But that’s not the end of Bartleby’s story, as the narrator eventually learns. Melville treats us to a strange and sad ending for a strange and sad fellow. Those details I’ll leave to inquiring minds to learn.

What strikes me so about this character is his utterly passive politeness. I imagine that’s the main thing that keeps the boss from strangling him or throwing him out the window or indeed suffering a stroke himself. I sometimes think of Bartleby’s demeanor when I’m trying to steer clear of an argument that I’d prefer not to engage in.

I would occasionally include this story in a lesson plan, and it didn’t take long for students to grin and try the “I would prefer not to” tactic when I gave them work to do. However, I would simply remind them to consider the bad end that Bartleby ultimately comes to because of his refusal to do what is expected of him.

Our personal rights and freedoms do give us the options of behaving badly or refusing to comply when something is asked of us, but we should always keep in mind that real and troublesome consequences can follow either of these choices, and consequences should be considered when weighing those options. 

We usually think that students who cause the most consternation for teachers are those who act out with their mouths and bodies, but teachers are also burdened by the ones who simply refuse to do their work. Nowadays there are way too many kids who fall into both of those camps. What they have in common is that they lack self-discipline and fail to think ahead to consequences. Let’s be honest: they see too many adults behaving in the same ways.

“Bartleby” is a cautionary tale about what can happen if one has no self-discipline, motivation, consideration of consequences, or respect for authority. The teaching of those qualities has to begin at home. When it doesn’t, even great bosses and great teachers will find it terribly difficult to reach and nurture their charges who prefer not to do the right thing, and aren’t even polite about it.