When I'm not writing this column, I teach English composition at a public university. Last Friday, one of my students, a freshman named Elizabeth, came to my office to discuss an "analysis" paper she has to turn in this coming week.
I told Elizabeth that I thought her idea for the paper was swell. Then I pointed out that it was going to take some careful writing for her to explain the complex philosophical concepts to her readers, but I said I thought she could do it. As I said this, Elizabeth's freckled face turned red, and it looked as if she might start crying. I asked her what was the matter.
"You're such a hard grader!" she said. "Maybe I should do an easier idea. I don't want to get another C!"
Here was a student with an original, challenging idea that would have stretched her brain and made her stronger in every way a college assignment should make a student stronger. But she was willing to throw the idea away because doing something easier might give her a better grade.
I can admire Elizabeth's intellectual struggle all I want. I can watch her mind grow more powerful and more nimble in that struggle with ideas. But I'm not allowed to grade her intellectual growth. I'm not allowed to grade our conversation in my office. I'm not allowed to grade her discovery of a difficult concept or her effort to articulate it. Heck, it's easier for both of us if she just chooses a simpler idea and successfully explains it in simple terms, so I can reward her with a happy B and we can both go away content.
Which is just why people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush get elected. They think simple thoughts and explain them in simple ways that American voters, having been rewarded their whole lives for avoiding difficult ideas, can feel comfortable with. Israel? Palestine? Iraq? You can't get an A from American voters by forcing them to deal with complex topics like those. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
Let me make it clear: I'm not advocating grade inflation. I don't think I should give Elizabeth an A just for trying hard. My point is, I shouldn't have to give her any grade at all. I should simply read her paper, tell her what she can learn from its strengths and weaknesses, congratulate her for an intellectual fight well fought, and send her on her way.
Instead, I will hand her the paper back, and Elizabeth will care about only one thing: Did she do better than a C? For my part, I will have written just those comments on her paper that will justify whatever grade I think it's worth, because I think she in fact deserves justification for that grade she cares so much about. We both will have acted the part of cowards, and the whole idea of learning will be reduced to alphabet soup.
American elementary schools, high schools, and colleges should give up grades right now. No grades, period. If you are a student, you pass or you fail. You pass if you are engaged fully in whatever intellectual struggle the course calls for. You fail if you don't try. There are good colleges that already work that way, although not many.
This is an old discussion, I know, but I think it needs to be renewed occasionally. The other night I watched a debate among the Democratic contenders for their party's presidential nomination. Not one of them said a single thing that was original. Not one of them seemed to be struggling in any way with his own ideas. Everything they said was rehearsed, predigested, careful, comfortable. They were bland and predictable, every one.
I'll bet in school they all got straight As.
Ed Weathers writes a weekly column for the Flyer Web site (MemphisFlyer.com), where a version of this commentary first appeared.