With What Measure

– By Dean J. Scott Miller

WE MUST all judge our way through life. One of the earmarks of critical thinking, an outcome described or implied in most syllabi in the College, is learning how to make fitting evaluations. In fact, one’s quality of life often is directly linked to the ability to exercise discriminating judgment. This issue of Humanities addresses the notion of judgment, specifically the idea and role of grades in the academy but, more generally, how the human need to compare and draw distinctions can both serve and abuse us.

Alfie Kohn recently proposed a thought experiment about how we view grading. What, he asks, would be your reaction if you were to read that, against expectations, all students in a given high school course passed the class?1 His conclusion: most people would respond with anything but a celebration of student and teacher achievement since built into our approach to judgment is an instinct to compare. That instinct, relative rather than absolute, would lead us to conclude that standards were too low, rather than that the teacher and students had diligently worked together so that all achieved the course learning outcomes. Often our evaluations are less about judging and more about ranking, which is a very different type of measurement.

The hierarchical nature of most human societies suggests we are naturally inclined to rank ourselves and others, so placement tests play a central role in how power is distributed in society. For millennia, Chinese imperial examinations determined the governing class and offered a means of rising in the world. The influence of that system still exists across Asia, for good and ill. In Japan and India some teenagers, whose families desire their success in entering the most exclusive universities, fail their exams and, with hopes for elevating family status dashed, commit suicide. This annual tragedy underscores the opportunities and dangers of assessment systems.

Our evaluations often come in the form of binaries: we focus on the difference between ourselves and someone else; we see ourselves as either succeeding or failing; we consider others as either friends or enemies. Polarity prevails as well in our metaphysics, where we frame existence in terms of light and darkness, good and evil, virtue and vice. Even where more graduated distinctions may appear, such as the A-through-E of the classroom, a binary tension persists in the background: do we pass, or do we fail? The final exam in the school of mortality is often framed in a correspondingly binary manner: heaven, or hell?

But life will teach us that not all choices are between good and evil, nor are most simple. Many great thinkers, writers, and artists have explored the theme of agency in a complex world: Goethe’s Faust, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Cao’s Dream of Red Mansions all contain characters who find redemption from binary thinking through their own failures and the intervention of others. Our own experience of life may regularly involve examples of personal wars won after learning from many battles lost. This kind of victory—where we transcend our failures through reflection, inspiration, adaptation, and renewed attempts—is at the heart of education in the academy.

In medieval European universities students took few, if any, written exams. Most, in fact, were orally administered in public (and in Latin), both by professors and alumni visitors! By its very nature, the oral examination was an interaction rather than a binary right-or-wrong test, and allowed for a great deal of exam flexibility and creative response. Evaluations were as much learning experiences as final reckonings. Over time, as enrollments swelled and the Industrial Revolution wrought its cultural changes, written exams were found to be more efficient at producing larger numbers of graduates. Grading became less a rite of passage and more a systematized process, focused on ranking student performance to filter out those unfit for further study. Thus, today’s GPA-centric universe derives from the industrialization of education. From the time we enter middle school, our cumulative grade profile becomes a metric upon which so much depends but that, in the broader scheme of life, only vaguely correlates with things that really matter. We judge, and are judged, by stylized, limited criteria. 

For most students coming to college, self-criticism via comparison constitutes a formative part of their education, especially during the early years. BYU is a big pond, and even the largest fish in high school will feel like minnows at times at this unique and highly talented university. Add to that a loving but rigorous faculty who grade more strictly than high school teachers, and we find a recipe for mass anxiety and insecurity. Most students, however, make it through somehow with egos intact because they learn to see their strengths and weaknesses more clearly while discovering new passions and interests. They find joy in discovery and self-mastery that is the core of higher-level learning. 

How does this miracle of learning and transcendence happen? It is largely a factor of wise and loving judgment delivered by teachers who are more interested in measuring as a means to promote growth than ranking as a means to filter or condemn. In this regard, a well-evaluated course can, indeed, mirror the ultimate calculus of mortality under divine tutelage: less a winnowing of masses than a wakening to our own true selves. As we judge our way through life, may we be both charitable and wise in how and why we measure!

1. Alfie Kohn, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?” New York Times, June 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/15/opinion/sunday/schools-testing-ranking.html.