One of the major differences between the American and the British education system is that in the American it is easier to score high than it is in the British system. I have just received some grades for an assignment for which I had 38 out of 100 points. The grading process is not entirely transparent. The supervisor sat across the table from me, when she returned me the assignment and said with teary eyes that after looking at the assignment twice, they still could not award me sufficiently more points to pass me. There was some shock in me, which has to do with the fact that I barely receive failures. I have to submit an improved assignment in a few weeks.
During my undergraduate days, I would easily score well, but I had decided that I would not concern myself too much with the grading system, because it would distract me from my own research interests, for which it is difficult to assign grades. If I wanted to study Japanese economic history between 1945 and today, who was to tell me that my work should have a good or a bad grade? If I received the good grade, so be it. Validation is uplifting initially, but loses its appeal after a while. If I received the bad grade, it could mean that the powers that be did not approve of the quality of my work, but for the student it meant that I should feel worthless about myself, even though that is never said explicitly anywhere.
The negative feedback effect of the grading system is blatantly obvious. It is because a student had received a poor grade that he shall feel ashamed of himself, and either try better the next time to please the teacher and to please the system or give up on academics altogether. In that sense, millions and billions of talented and curious individuals are rebuffed from the education system, because they had not produced the kinds of answers that the system wants to hear. Ironically, the teacher told me that part of the reason why I failed was because of my chronic desire to finish the work quickly and “tick the checkbox” rather than do the work slowly and methodically. Apparently, I should not be ticking the checkbox, when, in fact, the system was about “ticking the checkbox” (i.e. submitting a work that pleases the eyes of the examiners).
What was even more disturbing was that class mates and teachers reinforced what Durkheim had called the “sacred”. In fact, the only way how an institution can survive is by the members of the group repeating and reaffirming the rules. A church would stop existing without prayers and songs, and apparently a university would stop existing without exams (which I will dispute later). The students would stress out about how well or poorly they performed, and in their hope to unload some of their anxieties, they would speak with their class mates about the grading system and how they could make it out well in the assignment and the exam. By hearing the other students’ worries, one begins to doubt one’s own ability and get focused on how to perform sufficiently, not to enlarge the mind but to please the requirements in the system. The teachers are also reinforcing student anxiety, ironically and especially when they want to be helpful to their students; for instance by answering student questions about the process of doing well. I had one entire seminar wasted because students kept on asking questions about the process, which includes exams and thesis work, while the intellectual content of the course was the side show.
The entire anxiety derives from the artificial environment of the grading system. We know that the pressure is entirely artificial, because one year from now no one will worry about this assignment or even this course. There will be some bits and pieces of the course material, and there will be a memory of the people in the course. The guy, who always came in with the tie and suit and could blabber on endlessly. The girl, who had a charming smile and was always helpful. It will be a hodgepodge of conversations and encounters, but not the checkboxes that we had to tick off. Life will be remembered, not our survival. I am looking at the Facebook photo of my former employer with co-workers after the last day of work. He had to dissolve the retail store, which the headquarters decided to close for lack of profitability. But rather than talk about the business aspect, he spoke sentimentally of a farewell from his co-workers. The profit motive lacks a heart, but the people working in it don’t.
Defenders of the grading system now claim that grades are very important to ensure that student learning is happening. But that assumes that student learning only happens with grades. The reality is that student learning can happen in a variety of settings, and learning is no worse under an alternative system without grades.
This begs the question of what the functional relevance of the grading system is. It could very well be that grading was introduced because it was the simplest way to ensure compliance with learning objectives, and then took a life of its own. But I find this path-dependence explanation too simple, because it neglects the social-psychological effects on students. It turns out that students, who are so focused on the process of securing good grades, are also very focused on getting promoted in the firm, receiving a high performance review, and pleasing the capitalist bosses. If people are so focused on the process, they lose sight of the big picture, i.e. of the relevant philosophical question that a liberal education teaches you: what for? Why should I struggle hard to jump over that next hoop? How does society benefit from me being competitive and securing a higher spot against others?
What is quite interesting is that my current program very much emphasizes the collaborative spirit, because there is no curve grading (which assigns a maximum quota of A grades), and so we are encouraged to meet each other and help each other to perform well. I do have a reasonable relationship with department mates in a way that did not exist during my undergraduate days. On the other hand, because the grading system is the underlying disciplining force of the program, I and the other students are still trapped like hamsters in a wheel. I encountered a department colleague recently, who was waiting outside the room to be called in and receive his assignment grades. He looked exhausted with a blank stare and focused on his grades, which was very different from the day before when we debated intellectual topics and he was heated, energetic and engaged.
What is profoundly sad is that academics itself is not immune to the process-centered hamster in a wheel phenomenon. One demography professor once told me with shining eyes that the greatest thing about being an academic (as opposed to a management consultant that he was before) is the freedom to research any topic, and the fact that no one can force you to choose a topic. Well, that is true, but as I pointed out previously (Liu 2016), there is a big distinction between older and younger faculty in that the younger faculty- facing much greater publication pressure and being methodology-driven (rather than phenomenon-driven)- are very process-centered technicians rather than wide-eyed scholars and intellectuals. Technicians are, no doubt, smart, but they are never in a position to ask the philosophical questions, only to do and not to think. One should only imagine what would have happened to human discovery if those technicians were reviewers and read manuscripts of Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Rousseau or any other thinker in those peer-reviewed journals today. They would reject their manuscripts for not being “rigorous” enough.
This rather depressing critique begs the question: What would be the content of an ideal education system? For a start, there should either be no exams, or those exams should be filled with comments for improvement for future reference. Had I received comments of improvement rather than the grade, I would have actually learned how to apply the method correctly rather than feel an empty frustration. By dropping the exams with grades, an important structural disciplining force gets dissolved, but is then replaced by self-discipline. It is true that self-discipline will vary among students, but if you look at the Montessori schools, children are more alert and disciplined than in normal schools, because students are allowed to ask and answer their own questions with the guidance of teachers, but without control or force. Students will be naturally curious and want to find out what happens all around them and why it happens (read the personal account of Deweyite education by Noam Chomsky). As Freire writes, knowledge should be co-creative rather than one-sided and enforced by the teacher on the student.
Wilhelm von Humboldt said himself that the knowledge that one discovers on his own will be remembered better than anything that is forced via exams. My most pleasurable experiences in Oxford have nothing to do with my course work, which for the reasons I listed above are rather frustrating and disappointing, but a mixture of listening to classical music (on the radio and even live at the Sheldonian theatre at low cost), writing this blog, reading non course-related books, watching movies, eating good food, meeting friends, seeing beautiful women smiling, having intellectual discussions with friends (including in Facebook chat groups), and going to external talks and seminars with Q&As. Even though it did not matter at all what I learned or retained from these conversations and seminars, I retained a lot more information than from a class lecture that is graded.
The most pleasurable academic experience- ironically with grading- was in the liberal arts honors program at my community college. I remember that there were some students, who were stuck in the grading paradigm, and asked the honors faculty about their grades. The students were rebuffed by the faculty, who said that they will receive the grades at the end of the term, when the college system finally requires them to input the grades. There was a mid-term and final exam, which the faculty emphasized were not “strongly evaluative”. I have heard of some students receiving B’s, but most students got A’s in all the five courses, which were taught in a block. There were only two semesters of honors, and I wished it could be there for the full four semesters. It was a night and day contrast to return to the “normal” college class. Honors students were encouraged to ask and answer questions and craft their own arguments rather than regurgitating the textbook knowledge to teachers in exchange for a grade, so they can quickly forget everything they learned after the exam. (Okay, crafting your own argument is not possible for all subjects like math for which there is right and wrong).
I just pick out four fascinating things that I experienced in the honors program. First, there was a female English teacher in the program, who was very sociable and enjoyed sharing her candid feelings of which I just highlight two: she first reassured us that we all already have A’s and now the question is what to do next, how to use that freedom of mind to write good commentaries of texts and discuss them with others. What a great feeling, but that great feeling naturally dissipates and is displaced by the desire to understand why Homer is relevant for us today, and what the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese had in common. The second was her candid observation that it did not even matter if we kept the notes from the lectures. We might as well throw them away and never look at them if we did not want to. No teacher had ever told me that before, as notes are usually prerequisites to writing good exam papers.
The second fascinating experience was to stumble into the office of an honors professor and seeing him read a book by Bertrand Russell (1994), who wrote about early childhood education and the importance of imbibing in children a thirst for learning and a lack of fear to discover the world for themselves. The third observation were my constant political debates and discussions with my department chair, who challenged and attacked my assumptions with quick wit and sharpness. The fourth experience was another faculty member taking us to the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York, where he told us before we got off the bus that we could decide to wander New York on our own or take the free guided tour with him (he is an art historian by training) inside the museum before wandering off on our own for the lovely day trip (which I attended twice, always duly stopping by at the legendary Strand bookshop at 12th Street and Broadway). Before honors, I had the inclination of an intellectual. After honors, I could not be anything but an intellectual.
My intellectually most stimulating time during my undergraduate days at Penn was taking the graduate sociological theory course with a world famous sociologist (Randall Collins), who despite his towering intellect (see the many books and articles he published and the thick skin on his forehead right above his eyebrows if you believe in body language) was humble, welcomed his students for one-hour one-on-one meetings. Rather than him lecturing you, you would lecture him, and he would take meticulous notes on his yellow notepad, which no other professor had ever done in front of me. When you were finished, you would have a conversation with him, where he gives his insights, but lets the student be in charge of his project. In class he would give a lecture during the first hour, and then would let the students make their comments for the rest of class (another 2 hours), and he would comment on every single student comment, so it was always dialog oriented. It is small wonder that his sociological theory would have so much reach and power. He was constantly engaging in dialog with students to gain a new perspective and a new insight. The only requirement in that class was to submit a 10-20 page paper at the end of the class dealing with any sociological theory of our choice. No stupid exam.
If I convinced you that abolishing the grading system makes sense, the next question is: Would free-thinking individuals pose a danger to society? There is no doubt that in a grade-less world, students would compare themselves with their former selves and try to do better than their former selves rather than compare themselves with other students and be constantly anxious and frustrated about themselves (rather than the system, which actually creates the anxiety and frustration). There is also no doubt that students, who ask the philosophical questions, are also more difficult to suppress and oppress by the powers that be (it is for instance more difficult to crush teachers unions than, say, retail unions). In that sense, the free-thinkers are a threat to the power structure, but that does not imply any danger to society.
I don’t know whether it is feasible to overthrow a system which so many people believe has worked so well for them (if they are deluded enough to believe it, though there are material benefits for paying deference to the system). There are counter-hegemonic sources of inspiration, primarily Paulo Freire, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, Wilhelm von Humboldt and John Dewey, but they can convert no more than a few intellectually-minded people, who have little to offer to counter the system. Even if I wanted to shield my children from the pernicious effects of mainstream education, they would still have to be exposed to it unless I am so rich that I can enable them to live in an isolated hamlet meeting only fellow bon vivant intellects. It is also true that it is much easier to swim with the stream than against it, which my limited punting experience in Oxford taught me.
One of my good friends and faculty during my undergraduate days organized critical seminars with his students, so they could analyze how the oppressive capitalist system worked out in their everyday lives. His advice was to pick a job to make a living, but to always retain the intellectual freedom in one’s mind, because that is the only life worth living after discovering the light. As Bertell Ollman put it, the first step toward liberation is knowledge of what is wrong with our present education system.