Grades: A Gun to Your Head

Sometimes for fun I will suggest to my colleagues, “You know, we should abolish grades at Penn State.” Usually, not imagining that this quixotic suggestion is in earnest, they offer a flip reply, and I’ll leave it at that. When I persist, though, the most common response is something like, “If there were no grades, then how could we make the students learn?”

How could we make the students learn? This sentiment leads us to almost everything that is wrong with education today, a wrongness is built in on such a deep structural level that no reform is possible unless it accompanies a social transformation of revolutionary proportions.

First off, why is it necessary to “make” anybody learn? Up to a certain age, children learn willingly, spontaneously, and with an alacrity rarely seen in adults. No inducements or threats are needed to make an infant learn to control his arms and hands or to learn to talk—a task far more difficult than, say, long division. Similarly, no coercion is needed to make some teenagers learn to ride a skateboard, others to play the guitar, others to learn chess. Aristotle was right when he said that curiosity is human nature.

Daniel Greenberg, co-founder of the amazing Sudbury Valley School, expresses the ludicrousness of forcing people to do what is already in their nature to do in the essay “Back to Basics”

Who would think of forcing people to eat, or drink, or have sex? . . . No one sticks people’s faces in bowls of food, every hour on the hour, to be sure they’ll eat; no one closets people with mates, eight periods a day, to make sure they’ll couple. . . . Does that sound ridiculous? How much more ridiculous is it, then, to try to force people to do that which above all else comes most naturally to them!

If human beings naturally desire to learn, then why do college students learn the bare minimum to get the grade they want? Why do they abstain from any coursework whatsoever that’s not enforced by quiz, paper, or exam? Why does it seem that they must be “made” to learn?

And make no mistake, grades are a mechanism of coercion. From gradeschool onward teachers, parents, and counselors make a great effort to associate grades with survival anxiety. I remember hearing in junior high, “You’d better get good grades or you won’t get into the honors classes in high school.” In high school it was, “You’d better get good grades or you won’t get into a good college.” And of course, if you don’t get into a good college and get good grades there, too, the next step is that you won’t be able to get a good job. In other words, there is an implicit equation of grades=money. Get good grades and you will survive better and more comfortably in the world.

An even more powerful association of grades with the survival instinct happens through their connection to self-esteem. Human beings, especially children, have a deep-seated, biologically based fear of parental abandonment and ostracism from the tribe, both of which are essentially a death sentence. Early on in childhood, good grades are linked to approval and bad grades to rejection, an association soon internalized as self-approval or self-rejection. We teachers wield a powerful weapon indeed, powerful enough to make children spend countless hours doing what we tell them to.

But why is any of this necessary if children naturally desire to learn anyway? The paradox dissolves when we realize that we use grades not to make them learn, but to make their learning conform to a schedule, curriculum, and methodology imposed from without. Grades, or some other form or coercion or manipulation, are indeed necessary to make someone learn something or do something that they do not want to do. Perhaps society has different priorities for learning than the child has. Some have even suggested that the real curriculum in school isn’t what’s in the textbooks–the real curriculum is, as John Taylor Gatto puts it, “Confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and that you can’t hide.” I would also add conformity, obedience, tolerance to boredom, and powerlessness.

When I tell a student, hand in this assignment by Friday or your grade will suffer, I am essentially imposing my priorities and values onto their life. I am saying, “This assignment should be more important to you than whatever else is going on in your life. Your argument with your girlfriend, your social development, your family crisis… whatever it is, I don’t care.” I am saying, “I know what is best for you.” True, the student has selected my class from a menu of many classes, but that is his or her only choice. Once in my class, she expects to do as she is told. Learning is not creative, but receptive.

Of course, as you may have gathered from these words, I am resisting a system that, figuratively speaking, puts a gun in my hand and expects me to coerce students into learning. I am forced into complicity by the fact that I would get fired if I refused to assign grades, or if I gave only A’s. It goes against my principles. When a student doesn’t do their work, my first thought is that they simply have another priority in life, which is something I would like to honor and respect. Who am I to punish them for listening to their inner voice and respecting their own priorities? Instead I should congratulate them.

I have tried various approaches so that I might teach with integrity, including having the students participate in their own evaluation. I tell them the grade is objective and has nothing to do with my personal regard for them. However, the link between grades and survival anxiety is too powerful. Grading is a poison at the very root of the educational system. How can I have an equal, mutually respectful relationship when we both know I have a gun in my hand?

The desire to learn comes from within, but that doesn’t mean teachers are useless. The teacher should be a resource, someone students seek out and incorporate into their own learning agenda, not the imposer and enforcer of academic discipline. I hope someday I can teach in a setting where students are not graded, examined, numbered, bribed, or coerced; where they come to me out of a free desire to learn what I have to offer.

This post was previously published on and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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