After eight years of teaching in public charter schools, I’ve held the following conversation with many young students with a peculiar inclination for “achievement:”
STUDENT: “What do I need to do to get an A?”
ME: “What would that mean if you got an A?”
STUDENT: “It would mean I did well in the class.”
ME: “What does ‘doing well’ mean?”
STUDENT: “Understanding the material.”
ME: “All right then. What would a B+ mean?”
STUDENT: “Still pretty good but not as good as an A.”
ME: “Not as good in what ways?”
Another pause. No answer, so I offer a hypothetical.
ME: “How about if I gave you an A+, 100%. What would that mean?”
STUDENT: “That I did really well. I learned everything in the class that I needed to.”
ME: “Then what?”
STUDENT: “What do you mean?”
ME: “If you got 100%, then what do you do?”
STUDENT: What do you mean?
ME: “Why do you go to school?”
The obvious answers come first. One says his parents make him. Another says the law requires it. A more alert one among them will say,
STUDENT: “Because I need to get good grades.”
ME: “Why do you need good grades?”
STUDENT: “To keep a good GPA.”
ME: “Why do you need to keep a good GPA?”
STUDENT: “To get into a good college.”
ME: “Why do you need to get into a good college?”
STUDENT: “To get a degree and get a good job.”
ME: “What is a good job?”
STUDENT: “One that makes good money.”
ME: “A good reason indeed! Why does one need to make good money?”
STUDENT: “To have a house and a car.”
Another student chimes in, “To support a family.”
ME: “Okay, then. That all sounds great. And then what?”
STUDENT: “What do you mean?”
ME: “You want to get good grades so that you can get into a good college to get a good job, to get paid well so that you can have a house, car, and support a family. Great! Then what?”
Usually, I run up against a brick wall at this point. One student once replied, “Then you take vacations.”
“And then you take vacations.” Perhaps no five words better capture the downside of the American treatment of leisure. The minds of our young have been curiously shaped in school since the “Everyone goes to college” sham took off in the 90s. A preoccupation with grades and “achievement” has been reinforced by high-stakes testing since No Child Left Behind took hold. NCLB ensured, through bi-partisan federal overreach, that every American child is put through hours upon hours of grueling, inane tests.
For what? To justify a bureaucratic superstructure run by suits completely foreign to the lives and education of these children, who will never meet them, never teach them, never know them, never care for them, never nurture them.
We’ve so thoroughly institutionalized our young students on this path of school/ grade/ GPA/ college/ job/ money/ vacation that they, and we, miss out on an important reflection upon what comes next after these human needs are met. Then what?
Within this narrow view of “education” institutions often speak of “lifelong learning” and other milquetoast platitudes. Only with a stretch of the imagination of yogic proportion do these echo the cry of liberal education down from the centuries of Western Civilization. Practical implications of education are paramount, but instead of so exclusively asking our children “What are you going to be when you graduate?” we need far more adults asking them, “Who are you going to be?”
Invariably, students take my question, Then what? to have a sequential answer, hence “Then you take vacations.”
My question, though, is not of the sort--not exactly. I ask, Is that it? Is your objective through 12, 16, 18+ years of formal schooling to acquire assets, marriage licenses, mortgages, and an IRA like you are playing The Game of Life board game? Is the product of so much schooling an ability to machinate simply?
What is in an “A?” Would an A by any other name smell as sweet? How did we get to this place of assigning “grades” as a designation of educational competence, anyway? Presumably, Aristotle did not run home from the Academy of Plato, clutching his report card, “Now I’ll make a good living!”
Our grading system of A-B-C-D-F marks lives today surprisingly unchallenged, being as natural to the school year routine as anything else. The rare schools that eschew the grade scale stand, in fact, or perception, “hippy dippy” and “out there” are juxtaposed against the supposedly cold hard objectivity of grade point averages and class rankings. Historically, however, the grading scale is the curiosity, not its absence. Prior to the late-1700s, the student-teacher relationship was exactly that—a relationship. The master mentored, instructed, and coached the pupil to understanding, skill, and insight. The student either knew or did not know, could do or could not do, required more teaching or did not.
The grading system was invented in the late-1800s by Cambridge professor, William Farish, for the purposes of moving students along more quickly and efficiently. Borrowed from the terminology of the factory lines of Britain, which “graded” factory products along a gradation of quality, Farish applied this practice to the processing of large stacks of papers to grade. The chemist thus became the first to institute the practice of quantitatively assessing student work.
Farish created this device after Cambridge moved from paying its faculty per class to paying per pupil. Yes, that’s correct. The grading system was created to make a teacher more money.
In his book Technopoly, the late Neil Postman examined how this tool shaped our thinking on what it is to learn:
I shall not argue here that [Farish’s grading system] is a stupid or dangerous idea, only that it is peculiar. What is even more peculiar is that so many of us do not find the idea peculiar. To say that someone should be doing better work because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man's essay on the rise of capitalism is an A — and that man's is a C + would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson. If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did. Our understanding of what is real is different. Which is another way of saying that embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.
Most students do not suffer so much from this system. I believe most students, and if they were honest, most teachers, see through it. It is something to put up with, sort of like the waiting in line at the DMV. But, the ones who suffer most tragically are the ones who buy into it the most—a certain population of straight-A students. In my practice as a teacher I’ve come to distinguish very clearly “students who get straight A’s” from “straight-A students.” For the former, the high marks are a happy accident about which they are more or less indifferent. They might celebrate in a passing moment, but then they go on with their lives. For the latter bunch, the marks are insignias, solemn marks of great import, judgments upon their identities, their selves. To get an A is to be an A; to get less is a scarlet letter that sears their hearts deeper than any letter donned by Hester Prynne.
As Postman said, we inherit preconceptions about education by unreflectively using tools to quantify all aspects of learning. The system predominates over the relationship. Learning becomes inherently more political when quantified like this. The student doesn’t like the grade; the parent gets on the child’s case (or as is more often now, the parent gets on the teacher’s case), and the teacher contends. Administrators step in. Sometimes, the teacher takes to inflating grades to avoid the whole encounter in the first place.
Grades quantify aspects of learning which are quantifiable and unquantifiable; grades amplify the politics of the classroom, and most concerningly, grades externalize learning such that students do not consider learning to be anything of intrinsic worth-- school as the DMV. Diploma as a license.
Beware the straight-A student, or, more to the point, beware creating the straight-A student. Our country’s problems in 2017 require incredible virtues of courage, ingenuity, and humane sensitivity to solve them. Unfortunately, schools can no longer rest easy in the illusion that education is practical only. The exigencies of our political and cultural crisis demand that education focus as much or more upon preserving our humanity through a liberal education. Getting everyone to college is not going to cut it—in fact, this philosophy adds much to the problem.
We need to consider again, as generations have done before us, Who will we be? It is through asking a whole generation of students this question, repeatedly, doggedly, daily, and holding them to an answer, that our nation will be able to answer the same.