On Grades and Grading

Good Grade on TestI often tell my students, “I’d rather take exams than grade exams.”  Their response is usually the typical groan and eye-roll only teenagers can effect.  Anyone who has done both knows I am right.

Yesterday in my Rhetoric class we read the essay “Grades” by James V. Schall in his excellent book, Another Sort of Learning.  The main thrust of Schall’s musings on grades is that they are a terrible nuisance and really don’t matter:

Grades are things not to worry about. Says who?  Well, I do, in a way.  No one is in a university to “get good grades”, even though your grades may be the main concern of the good tuition payers back home. … If to get a good grade a student reads St. Augustine—well, terrific.  But I am also impressed by someone who reads St. Augustine and gets a D-, but who five or twenty-five years later is still reading him. It takes all one’s life to read St. Augustine, so the first dozen times through probably deserve a D- anyhow.

What is most important, of course, is that the student learns, not that they get a particular grade.  After all, how many of you can remember what grade you got in Junior English in High School? Says Schall,

When students get as ancient as certain unnamed professors, of course, as they inevitably will, something Cicero taught in his marvelous essay “On Old Age”, just what grade they got back in Government 117 will tend to be obscured by their inability to recall whether they actually ever took Government 117 in the first place. The only thing we need to recall is what we read, what we spoke about, and if we are lucky, what we wrote about.

Now, over at the Imaginative Conservative, John Wilson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College, claims that grades are “the chief cruelty of our profession: assigning our student to paradise, purgatory, or the inferno with the stroke of a pen.”

Quite rightly, Wilson reminds us that “grades” are a modern invention (one that I would argue can be traced back to Descartes and his desire to measure everything with regards to Mathematics):

Grades as we know them are a relatively recent educational innovation. Although Yale president Ezra Stiles tried as early as the 1780s to rank his seniors (Optimi, 2nd Optimi, Inferiones, Pejores) it didn’t take. Mt. Holyoke College was the first institution to adopt a grading system—in 1897, about the time my grandfather graduated from Syracuse. . . .

Grades were invented by my grandfather’s generation, a product of an age of democracy and equality, science and technology and measurement; an age of organization and bureaucracy: The Progressive Era. Grades are no more “natural” to teaching, or to education in general, than is the SAT, which is also a reflection of similar cultural assumptions.

But none of this consoles me.  I still have a stack of essays, exams, quizzes, and exercises to grade.  More Port please.