Following one of the informal round-table discussions I have with university students, a sophomore I'll call Donald stayed to discuss a problem involving a classmate. A few days earlier, Donald had been able to prevent the classmate's suicide. Despite conscientious attention to his studies, his friend had been getting poor grades--and was so panicked by his probable expulsion that self-destruction seemed the only alternative. He bought a revolver and was loading it when Donald happened to enter the room.
I commended Donald for his handling of the situation. Psychiatric counseling was obviously needed immediately. But as I spoke, I realized that the problem might not be confined to that student. The school might be partly responsible. Were there unreasonable pressures on some students? Had the school been responsive to the emotional needs of students confronted with academic demands? Are grades overemphasized as indicators of academic success? Have schools generally allowed competition for high marks to obscure the basic purposes of education?
Student suicides and emotional breakdowns are on the increase throughout the United States. Not all these disasters are the consequence of academic pressures; drug abuse and complicated personal relationships also take their toll. Nonetheless, scholastic failure is a major problem of American youth, shattering many students' sense of self-worth.
True, being dropped from school isn't the end of the world. Thousands of successful people in the United States don't have college degrees. But today's recruiters from the business or professional world want top students--and top means academic standing. The job market is the most competitive it's been since the Depression. Anyone hoping for a career in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, education, communications or business management knows the bread-and-butter value of high grades.
The question is not only how well a student can take academic pressure but also what effect educational policies--at the elementary, secondary and college levels--have on the student and on society.
The basic purpose of education is to develop the human brain. But not all school policies and practices work to that end.
Most tests, for example, measure ability to memorize but seldom evaluate what's most important: the ability to find and use reliable information; the ability to think creatively.
An engineering journal recently reported an episode at an Ohio university. A physics test question asked students to determine the height of a building with the aid of a barometer. One student answered: "I would take the barometer to the top of the building. Then I would tie a string to the barometer and lower the barometer to the ground. I would mark the string at the point where the barometer touched the ground. Then I would pull up the barometer and measure the length of the string. The length is the height of the building." The professor, admitting that the answer was not incorrect, asked the student to apply a more academically acceptable scientific principle.
The student provided three more inventive answers, all correct, but none solved the problem using the principle the professor had had in mind. Some teachers, no doubt, would be tempted to give the student a failing grade. Others, though, would feel lucky to have an original thinker in their class and would admire his lively intelligence.
Facts are perishable. In medicine, the understanding of disease and treatments change constantly. In history, interpretations of events change. Public perceptions and philosophies change. Schools should stress how to deal with changing knowledge, not reward the memorization of "facts."
Tests often encourage students to answer with rote replies, and the results are evaluated on a comparative basis--"graded on a curve"--rather than on intrinsic merit. In other words, individual grades are based on the performance of the entire class. Even though all the students have 90% or more of the answers correct, the student with the highest number of correct answers would receive an A, while the student with the fewest would get a C or a D.
The story is told of an exam in a Harvard philosophy class taught by William James that called for an essay on comparative values in philosophy. Gertrude Stein was in the class and turned in a one-sentence essay--"I don't feel much like writing about philosophy today"--and received a top grade. Several students who submitted full papers but who received lesser grades questioned James on his grading of Stein's answer.
"One of the prime values of philosophy is honesty," he replied. "She demonstrated it."
James obviously considered his students as individuals, not as statistics. The practical effect of grading on a curve is that learning is overshadowed by the students' need to outdo their classmates. The school winds up fostering destructive competitiveness.
Modern education also fosters glibness by requiring essay answers in time frames that preclude the careful thought that good writing demands. Thomas Mann considered himself lucky if he could put down 500 usable words in a full day's work. The parallel to speed writing is speed reading, and it has similar limitations. It may be useful for scanning business reports, but it is hell on literature. One of the finest experiences possible is to have a world of ideas unlocked by a gifted writer. Good reading takes time.
An educated mind is able to locate and evaluate information, to make connections between ideas, to distinguish the useless from the useful.
To drop a student because of poor grades runs counter to education's purpose, which, in the words of philosopher John Dewey, is to enable every individual to come into full possession of his or her powers.