Friday, August 9, 2013

Against Grading

One of the best things to happen in my education was when I attended a school - a graduate school - that refused to give grades. "How is that possible?" you may ask.  "What kind of fluffy, feel-good, no-good education did you get there?"  To which I reply: a damn good one; one of the best.  Curious?  Read on:


We are sick with love of enumeration.  We've discovered that counting things over time is a powerful way to predict what will happen next.  And now we are mantic-obsessives, (that's not a typo) that is, people obsessed with prediction, with foresight that will rule the uncertainty of our lives.

Look: that's not such a bad thing, in a way.  What I'm describing is the root and trunk of science: quantification and statistical analysis is the beating heart of our understanding of scientific laws, which are about predictive inference.  Understanding of the laws of nature can save lives, and make water clean, and heal some deep wounds. Science is wonderful, and no liberal education should stint in its science offerings.

But if we're not careful - if we divorce science and enumeration from other ways of regarding value - that can make some pretty big holes in the world, too.  (Whenever I hear someone say that religion is the cause of human suffering, I think "What about chemistry?"  Both religion and chemistry can be deployed to change lives, and to change them dramatically.  Or to end them suddenly.)

Likewise enumeration.  The counting of things can give us great power to rule our own futures.  It can also give us great power to rule the futures of others, and not always in kind ways.  One real danger of learning to count things is that we find it too easy to shift from saying "It's hard to count X" to saying "X doesn't count."

Our quantifimania, for instance, has half of us (no, I didn't count, I'm speaking figuratively) believing that good teaching can be measured by test scores.  Or that someone's intelligence can be reduced to a simple number.  Or that a kid's giftedness, or ability to learn, or likelihood of living a creative and thoughtful life can be simply reduced to a GPA or a standardized test score.

Years ago, when I was thinking about beginning my graduate studies in Philosophy, a professor I knew suggested I prepare for my Ph.D. by attending St John's College's "Great Books" program.  I looked over the reading list and realized that even if it didn't get me into a Ph.D. program, it would be worth it for its own sake.

As an undergraduate at an elite liberal arts college in the northeast, I was continually reminded that little mattered more than my grades.  I was the sort of student who earned good grades with little effort, so it was natural to begin to believe that what mattered most came without struggle.  As a result - I realize this now, in hindsight - I bypassed much of the opportunity my college offered me by studying only what my classes required of me.

This all changed in my first term at St John's, when I wrote a seminar paper on Aristotle.  My tutor Matt Davis returned it to me without a grade on it.  Instead, it was covered with marginal comments, underlining, and a paragraph of reflection and response at the end.  But again, no grade.  "How did I do?" I asked him.  "Have a look at what I wrote," he replied.  Sure enough, he told me how I did: here were the things that were strong; here were the gaps in my argument.  No quantification, just explanation.

I wanted a grade because I'd been habituated to thinking of the grade as the way of judging the merit of my work.  St John's decision to refuse to give grades is an intentional and hard-fought resistance to that way of thinking.

At the end of the term, each of my tutors gave me one, two, or even three pages of handwritten comments on my strengths and weaknesses as a student.  But once again, no grades.  Nothing to distract me from reading their comments, nothing that would allow me to measure the worth of their comments other than the comments themselves.  And nothing to make me think: "Well, that's done."

As a result, I stopped thinking about grades and started thinking about ideas, and texts, and writing.  I started caring more about correcting my ignorance than about concealing it from my peers and teachers.  And I stopped thinking about learning as something that happens in fifteen-week segments.  Learning was no longer something that begins here and ends there.  Learning was now a river I step into, and in which I may swim, and bathe, and drink for as long as I am able.  And if I step out, it remains there, ever flowing, for me to return to.

It was only then that I realized just how bored I had been in school.  I had been bored since my childhood, because I had to show up, had to perform tasks, in order to get these lofty numbers that weighed so heavily and meant so little to me personally.

I've known many students who are bright but who don't do well on standardized tests.  I've known many others who don't do well on any test at all, and I've no doubt that much of it has to do with anxiety over the way their work will be reduced to a number, one they feel is so disconnected from what they know.  As a teacher I feel I'm constantly fighting to get my students to stop worrying about their grades, even while I'm required to assign grades to their work.  Grades are, in my opinion, one of the worst things to happen to education.  This is not to say I'm against evaluation or helpful feedback.  I'm all for them, in fact.  Which is why I'm so opposed to the damnable, lazy practice of reducing that evaluation to what can be easily counted.

The ancients tell us that King David sinned against God by counting his fighting men.   (Here, too.)  I think the sin was not the counting, but the way his counting became a basis for policy, and so for value.  When we weigh our forces before going to war, the question shifts from "Is this a war worth fighting?" to "Can I win?"  Both of those are important questions, but God save us from ever making the latter so important that we think of the former as a question that doesn't countThat kind of thinking turns people into instruments of war rather than free individuals; people become pawns, tools of policy, and they become as expendable as they are enumerable.  When we dare to quantify our gains and losses in terms of numbers of human lives expended, we have already lost something important that may be very hard to regain.

And God save us, likewise, from thinking of our lives as things to be measured, and measured against others' lives.  God save us from thinking of meaningful work as something to be done against a time clock, from thinking of wealth as something to be measured in numbers rather than in a richness of life.  And God save us teachers and citizens from thinking that the worth of a woman or a man can easily be measured by the grades they have earned, or that the predictions we may make on the basis of those grades should have the power of prophecy. 


  1. I just read an encouraging article by St. John's current president on a similar issue - the reduction of the value of a liberal arts education to an economic return. Seems like an institution to explore. Thanks for sharing these reading lists!

    Our meeting in the forests of Guatemala were fortunate indeed. I've found pleasure and inspiration in reading the thoughts you share.

  2. It was fortunate, indeed! I've likewise enjoyed reading what you post, and often wish we lived nearby so I could talk with you over a beer. Let me know if you find yourself in my neck of the woods someday!