In Defense of Grades

One of the more obnoxious T-shirts in the Swarthmore campus bookstore reads, “Anywhere else it would have been an A…really.” To the extent that Swarthmore is known for its grade-deflation and classroom intensity, I suppose that this T-shirt speaks the truth—and the fact that students console their academic anxiety through a quirky piece of clothing probably says a lot about our student body.

John Wilson, professor emeritus at Hillsdale College and blogger at the Imaginative Conservative recently called the practice of grading “the chief cruelty of our profession: assigning our students to paradise, purgatory, or the inferno with the stroke of a pen.”

As a college student on the receiving-end of that red ink, I agree with Wilson’s observation that grading can occasionally be cruel. Certainly it is arbitrary. But, then again, so much of life is.

Conservatives like to point out that grades are a progressive invention, first adopted by Mount Holyoke in 1897. Looked at this way, grades seem to symbolize all of the mechanization, bureaucracy, and Deweyism of that Era, and conservatives are right to question such practices in so far as these educational movements likened liberal learning to a machine. At the same time, with the Higher Ed bubble poised to burst and many decrying the decline of academic rigor (the average U.S. student spends just 15 hours a week studying), I believe conservatives ought to defend grades as flawed but necessary. We, unlike the early progressives, can acknowledge the imperfectability of human nature, even as we crunch our GPAs.

Grades, from an early age, instill a sense of accountability. They teach us deference to our educators’ authority. Most often, school children find out, hard work will pay-off. But, occasionally—through our own struggles, teachers’ prejudice, or sheer bad luck—our grades and efforts won’t match-up. That’s a good lesson too.

Sometimes a classmate will outperform us because she is just plain better at calculus. Other times we’ll be the one to ace the history exam. Contrary to the original progressive project to render school children cogs in a greater societal machine, grades prove to us our own individuality—our own strengths and flaws as people and learners and adaptive social animals.

Some of today’s academics, too many of which see “diversity” as the only real bottom line, are ready to toss-out the SAT and other benchmarks because the test “privileges” certain kinds of students. Incidentally, Mount Holyoke is one of numerous liberal arts colleges to go the “test-optional” route in its Admissions, whereby students can avoid sharing their SAT, ACT, or AP data. Sure, standardized tests are flawed, but what the politically-correct deans’ offices overlook is the fact that the SAT, first conceived in 1926 by psychologist Carl Brigham, was designed as a means for transcending blueblood culture at Harvard. Once the test was introduced, historically under-privileged students could gain entrance into the Ivy League by virtue of merit, rather than through name and old money.

The SAT, like grades, promises a crack at some of America’s most elite institutions and an opportunity for upward mobility. Of course, we know that tests only means so much. Anyone bragging about his scores and grades after high school and college is a blowhard. For the most part, we all know this. There comes a point when you realize that what you achieved with a #2 pencil in 12th grade is ultimately insignificant in the face of family, friends, education and faith.

This is coming from a recovered grade-oholic. Unfortunately, throughout my high school days, I was obsessed with my cumulative average. I genuinely enjoyed school and acquiring knowledge, but, along the way, falsely tied my self-worth to whether or not any “minuses” appeared on my report card that term.

In time, I’ve found that reading, writing and dreaming about literature, politics and philosophy is so much more fulfilling than some letter at the beginning of the alphabet. But waking-up from the GPA cave and realizing that self-fulfillment comes through knowledge of the good and the beautiful is probably reason alone to keep grades around.

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