“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.”
Before engaging with another person, there are a set of precepts that we all have that dictate exactly what the parameters of a discussion are. We know that certain signs will indicate favor with the other person, others disfavor. Some signs will indicate confusion, others comprehension. Most importantly some signs will indicate whether one’s behavior or conversation topic are appropriate for the situation at hand. Similarly for most anything within the realm of human function we find precepts that are parameters, guiding where something can and should go. These precepts are not always ones of which we are conscientious, but usually we have some sense of them.
The epicenter of my thought today is around education and the precepts that we teach our students. Education is never plain cut around the categories under which we achieve it. The subject of my classroom is the language of Spanish, but that is not just what I am teaching my students. I educate them around behavior, etiquette, ethics, and culture as well. Sometimes I even engage and teach about other subject areas like history and literacy. But by the time that students come to me (since I teach high school or advanced middle school), students usually already have a set of precepts around education.
One of the most important of these precepts is the North American grade. I think grading students is a good practice. It helps communicate to the student a teacher’s perception of their education and whether there needs to be any change in regard to how a student interacts with their teacher, or it informs the student where they stand with regards the comprehension or learning of new content material. It also provides a measure of accountability. No one likes to see themselves as being worth less than they feel, and when a grade starts to dip past where a student sees themselves it offers motivation to improve themselves. It also offers others from the outside a look at the way a student is in class. Do they do the work? Do they perform well? Do they do homework assigned to them?
The North American grade, however, has become something more than that. It has become the focus point of a cultural shift, one that deserves a bit of attention. Grades are a tool, serving an end outside of themselves. Just like any other tool from our past, mankind has learned to warp it to serve themselves regardless of the circumstances, moral or otherwise.
Because of the potential cause that grades can serve, a lot of people have come to view grades as an authoritative step in making other decisions and answering key questions:
Can this student play sports?
Can this student play video games?
Can this student see his friends?
Can this student go to college?
Can this student be trusted with responsibility at work?
Can this student receive financial aid for current or further education?
And at first these seem like reasonable questions to answer with educational grades, because the effort and application required to earn good grades in school translates into other situations and can be used as a measure of a stranger’s confidence in a student.
Here’s the kick, though. Our society is losing a sense of morality. Students, parents, everyone. Yeah, sure, be nice to everyone, but life is about what you make it. Follow your dreams. Everyone else doesn’t necessarily matter. Do what makes you happy because no one else will. Authority figures aren’t to be trusted because they don’t know you as an individual. Make your own way.
So when students come into school and they are confronted with educational material, they balk at it. What does learning Spanish have to do with following your dreams to become a football player or a hairdresser? Math class doesn’t make me happy, and no one else you talk to (except your math teacher) goes on about how it makes them happy, so why should you care about it? Authority figures are always misleading, so what point is there to believe that your teacher is actually doing something for your own good? Best to not worry about it. Just make your own way. Survive high school and then you can do what you want.
Except that doesn’t work. Because grades are attached to their behavior at school. Behavior not even meaning dramatic misbehavior, but typical day to day actions. Complete the work? Get the grade. Don’t complete the work? Don’t get the grade (or get half credit). Grades are how you survive high school so that you can finally get on to doing what you want afterwards. High school (and college) are seen as “barriers to entry” for whatever thing it is that students would rather be doing with their lives (or what they think they would rather be doing). Since grades are a “barrier to entry” for getting past high school and into these other things, then we start to revisit those questions from earlier with a bit of a different perspective. When students see grades they don’t see a reflection of their education or their effort towards school work. They see:
I can’t play sports.
I can’t play video games.
I can’t see my friends.
I can’t go to college.
I can’t get a job.
I can’t receive financial aid.
And so I get comments like:
“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.”
Instead of these excess questions that people use to evaluate a student’s potential being in excess, they become necessary and are usually the only things relevant to a student. Whether they are actually learning or progressing in the class? Not important. Whether the grade from that class is allowing or preventing them access to other diversions and goods? Totally important. Instead of these questions of access being secondary, as originally designed, they become primary.
THIS IS TERRIBLE.
As our society loses a focus on the value of morals, it loses a focus on the value of things that only exist in the abstract. If it isn’t visible and if it doesn’t produce a tangible effect that brings goodness and happiness to me, then it doesn’t have value.
Our current educational system is based on the notion of a Liberal Education. Before any cranky conservative goes spouting off about how liberal snowflakes are destroying children, let me liberate them from that thinking. A liberal education is that which liberates the soul from materialist thinking (St. Augustine, De Ordine). St. John Henry Newman articulates it in a slightly different fashion in his book The Idea of a University:
“Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.”
Can we measure a cultivated intellect? Can we measure the degree to which a soul is liberated from materialist thinking?
Grades are a good start, because they have some measure over the engagement of a student with a task or the degree of intellectual excellence that a student can demonstrate, but grades aren’t the end of that image. When material goods are seen as the end of good grades, or when material goods are seen as the end of education, teachers and parents have failed. Right now, in this cultural setting, grades have failed. Students no longer have sight of what an actual liberal education is. They have no precepts for how to engage with it in an actually liberating way. But it doesn’t start with them, it begins with the people administering it. It begins with parents, administrators, and teachers, and those are the people that have the power to remedy this malady.
“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.“
Far from it. I do understand. You’re telling me exactly what you’ve been taught.