Making the Grade

Won’t Get Fooled Again
Peter Townshend
The Who

Making the Grade

Faculty of medical school faculty giving an examination
Examination at Faculty of Medicine; Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

It is difficult to know if grades have any real value. Educators are told there must be assessments and measurements of what students have learned and the depth of that learning. Plato once said “Nothing that is learned under compulsion stays with the mind.” Teachers often complain that students forget much of what they learn soon after they take the test, which, if true, suggests that Plato may have been onto something. But of course that must be balanced with the fact that student who hated their math classes can often balance their checkbooks and those that hated English can read newspapers and write, even if only after a fashion.

The first quizzes have come due in most of my classes this year and though, on the whole, the students did better than usual, there were still some “causalities”. High school students are not at an age where they can know what they will and will not need to know to succeed in the future. It is in their interest to learn much of what they are taught in school, they just do not know that yet. But, that said, there is also much they may never need to know that they will still have to learn. The only way future mathematicians can know they are destined to become mathematicians is by being exposed to the more complex forms of math that they are unlikely to encounter in daily life. The students that are exposed to this level of mathematical learning but are not destined for the world of higher mathematics may not ultimately get much value from taking these courses.

This is to say nothing of course about the tests in each of the disciplines that are being made a requirement for graduation in public schools. If I were a public school student today I would have to pass a science proficiency test in order to graduate. I took three or four years of science classes when I was in high school, but I do not remember much of it now and I am rarely asked in my English classes to demonstrate my knowledge of science. I could probably have passed the test at the time if it were a graduation requirement (I passed all my others) but I do not know if passing such a test would have improved my recall.

On the other side of the coin what I learned about the practice of science and the scientific method in those classes has stayed with me to a certain extent. One need not be a scientist to know that methods used to verify scientific facts, truths, or theories are complicated, thorough, and difficult requiring a great deal of training. It helps a person appreciate not only the complexities of life on earth but to approach problems in general with a bit of skepticism especially towards simplistic solutions to difficult problems. It is not necessary to remember a lot of high school math and science to appreciate the value of logical thought and careful analysis.

What then is the value in being able to scan a line of poetry, to understanding a Henry James novel, or knowing about Shakespearean stagecraft? If the study of math and science teaches us to appreciate logical precision in all things what does English teach us that transcends the discipline? English is the only discipline, at present, that is required in all four years of high school. Why is this? If the purpose of studying English (or English Language Arts as it is called today) is to learn to write an effective memo or to understand product brochures, why study novels, poems, and plays that are hundreds of years old and often employ a kind of English no one speaks anymore?

I tell my students that I read to glimpse the world through the eyes of another. To care about the characters in a novel or play I have to enter into the world of these characters and try to understand what is happening from the point of view of these characters. This builds empathy. To live well we must learn to balance our mind and our passions. If we ignore our passions and listen only to our intellect we cut ourselves off from much that makes living worthwhile. Not only that we lose some of our humanity. We start looking at the world clinically as though living well were little more than making the right diagnosis.

The dangers of listening only to our passions are a bit more obvious. One of the slogans of my generations was “If it feels good, do it.” This view of the world resulted in some unfortunate choices. But to ignore the passions altogether is also problematic. I think empathy proceeds from passion; it is after all the ability to feel, to a degree, the joys and sorrows of others. What becomes of a society that divorces itself from the suffering it sees going on around it?

Reading also helps us to understand how to live. I do not think it is an accident that most of the world’s great teachers used stories to illustrate their ideas. Whether it is Plato telling his story about “The Cave” as a metaphor for ignorance or Jesus telling the story of the “Good Samaritan” to illustrate who is the neighbor we ought to love, or Aesop telling his fables as a way of illustrating what he believed to be moral truths, it was the stories that defined ignorance, love, or tenacity not the dictionary.

Students must also learn to write well and to construct meaningful arguments that give weight and credibility to their thoughts and opinions, but aside from the example good writing sets what is the point in devoting the amount of time we do to the study of literature? What is the value of this kind of knowledge for a society? History tells us that many of the most brutal tyrants enjoyed the arts, wept at the theater, read great literature and though many of these works of art and literature showed brutality for what it is, these tyrants at best missed the point. At worst they got the point and were unchanged. Thomas Nashe wrote “Those that care neither for God nor the devil by quills are kept in awe. Multi famam, saith one, pauci conscientiam verentur, (Many respect what others say, few respect what their conscience tells them.)” But the behavior of some of the worst suggests that perhaps they care no more for what others say than they do for what their consciences tell them, though it might be said they have been robbed of any presumption of innocence, that they can no longer say they did not know any better.

My generation also questioned the relevance of everything (or at least we did while we were in college). It was not enough to study a poem or novel there had to be some relevance to that poem or novel; it had to have something important to say about the human condition and the state of the world. If they did not do that they were nothing more than entertainments that were probably not worthy of our time. I think this judgment is a bit severe, but at the same time I do think there should be good cause to make so many young people read so many books against their will. There is of course the medicinal defense that they will be better for having invested the time in books, but that is only true if they in fact invest the time and learn the lessons the books teach and apply these lessons to their own lives.

Certain Victorians saw the study and teaching of great literature as a kind of religious vocation. They saw the professor of literature as a kind of priest and the books themselves as a kind of scripture. It is largely out of this attitude towards literature that English class became more than just the study of rhetoric and classical texts. These Victorian critics lived in a world where anything written after the second or third century of the Common Era was considered “modern literature” and therefore not worthy of serious study.

So is literature worthy of this study, is it relevant? And if it is not relevant why ask students to spend so much time reading and writing. And why ask teachers to spend so much time grading all the stuff that this reading and writing produces that must in turn be assessed? As a teacher I think true learning comes from the love of learning itself and that this love cannot be coerced, though it must be awakened. Without exposure to great writing few will go on to appreciate great writing and those sensitive to the lessons that the literature teaches will perhaps not learn those lessons effectively.

I remember attending a lecture given by the Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal. He talked about, among other things, how refined and sensitive the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was at home with his wife and children and how brutal he was to the rest of the people of Spain. He made the comment that brutality should be taken off the streets and put back in the home where it belonged (he spoke in Spanish and this is the gist of the translation that was given). His point was that if Franco spent more time beating his wife and children perhaps he would not have been so brutal to the people of Spain. As a teacher of literature I would like to think we could learn to be kinder to one another by taking the lessons of literature more seriously and continue to show some kindness to our families. I say this knowing that many of those that wrote this great literature were not themselves very kind. Perhaps this is a bit idealistic and the likelihood of this happening may not justify the time spent reading and writing and grading. I do not know the answer, but it is my personal struggle.

There should be relevance to reading great books and there should be a value to the grades that we assign. I have never liked grading, not just because it is a tedious exercise but because I think it often stifles the true love of learning. But I also know there are those that come to love learning through the educational process as it is practiced today and that grading was a part of the process that inspired these students. The issue may not be whether or not all students can learn at the highest levels, but whether or not all students can be made to want to. I have read stories of Zen masters that used to beat students with sticks who asked them how to find enlightenment. The students were beaten because the question itself betrayed a lack of understanding concerning the nature of enlightenment.

Perhaps study that is motivated only by grades is improper study and must be discouraged. Students who do only what they need to do to pass have perhaps missed the point but have made a bargain with the process and if they are not going to move on to appreciate learning on its own terms they should be left alone to pursue what interests them, so long as they learn the minimum as required by law. Others come to take some pleasure in acquiring knowledge and perhaps a bit of wisdom. For these students grades, though important for other things, are not entirely what motivates them. Perhaps grades are a kind of metaphor for the sticks Zen Masters used on their students. They fall painfully on those students who think the wrong way about grades and the nature of learning. Some students, though, come to understand that “what’s my grade?” is the wrong the question to ask and on those students the sticks fall softly, if at all.