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Biased Against the Bright

It might seem churlish, even inhumane, to quarrel with an instructor who wants to reward character, commitment, or hard work in his students -- or even personal ability to "respond" to course work -- but nonetheless I was frequently appalled by the mishmash of personal and socio-political reasons my colleagues cited in explanation of their grades. Was this what university had become, I asked myself, an institution in which the instructor weighed non-academic factors, ranging from socio-economic class to psychiatric history to identity category, in deciding what mark to give? Was excellence really such a malleable quality that grades could be determined by an instructor’s feelings, political sympathies, and social assessments? Was I wrong to feel that only hypocrisy and corruption could come from awarding grades on the basis of wishful thinking and good intentions?

Granting that my assessment is accurate -- and certainly analyses of the phenomenon of grade inflation are incontrovertible, though it is far more difficult to ascertain how instructors decide to award the grades they give and whether they grade improperly -- a range of factors has combined to produce our current situation. The largest and most obvious is the wide-scale perception, from the highest levels of the university administration on down, that universities are about “social justice,” that they are designed to correct past wrongs and to promote progressivist goals, and that the shaping of socially conscious and activist-minded citizens rather than academically proficient students is their fundamental end.

Stanley Fish has shown, in Save The World On Your Own Time, the prominence given to social goals alongside academic ones in the mission statements of most modern universities. The draft Strategic Plan of my own institution includes “civic responsibility” as part of its mandate, which it defines as “the value we place on sustainable development, diversity, integrity, respect for others, and equality.” It is nowhere stated in university manifestos that grades themselves will be determined with such ends as “equality” in mind; but there is a logical consistency in linking grading practices to the other well-known “diversity” practices of the university, such as placement quotas for minority students, special scholarships for the disadvantaged, social-justice oriented courses and departments, and the professoriate’s widespread left-leaning perspective in both pedagogical and discipline-specific theory. When university as a whole is no longer about the pursuit of truth but about the forming of the whole person and commitment to “diversity” and “equality” (the code words of liberationist ideologies), why should not decisions about grades be influenced by the same philosophy?

Indeed, when one begins from the assumption that one’s society has been profoundly shaped by historical injustices and that such injustices continue to account for the differences in economic strata and conditions of various groups -- when prison statistics are used to prove not who is committing crime but who is oppressed by the dominant powers; when the existence of the poor is seen as an index of the unfair advantage of the wealthy, and so on -- then any standard of merit becomes unstable. If one’s worldview finds in social contexts such as poverty and prejudice an explanation for all human differentials, then academic achievement will be understood in the same terms. Under such thinking, it is not fair to judge student X by criteria determined and applied by an oppressor class, for such criteria will merely guarantee student X’s continued subjection. Grading becomes, in this way of thinking, a politically fraught activity for which active resistance and subversive measures must be summoned.