Since 1990 I have taught a course in European cultural history at the University of Nevada, Reno. It used to be called Western Traditions 202, but when that name began to sound politically incorrect an inoffensive substitute was found, and since 2003 it has been called Core Humanities 202, though the content remains the same. The course is required of all undergraduates, so the enrolment is always high. Last semester I had 220 students in the big lecture, with four teaching assistants to manage the discussion groups.
One of my favorite moments in the semester comes when we read an 1784 essay by Immanuel Kant called “What Is Enlightenment?” The only thing necessary to ensure the progress of reason, Kant says, is the freedom to express new ideas. Let every idea be given a fair hearing, let its merits and demerits be reasonably considered and, barring some repressive intervention, the most reasonable course will be preferred. Now Kant was not so naive as this makes him sound. He was at pains to distinguish between the academic forum, in which such free discussion should take place, and the world of professional duty, where obedience and conformity are required. He did not want the hard-won benefits of civilization to be lost by allowing people in subordinate positions to decide — even if reasonably — that they would rather not obey their orders.
Kant’s terminology is tricky, so I like to give the students an example. In my judgment, I tell them, the grading system used in this country is ill conceived. In every secondary school and college in America, the quality of students’ work is assessed with fine attention to nuances of merit. Those who give grades and those who receive them are both aware of the difference between a B- and a C+, or between a C- and a D+. But this refinement tends to obscure a much more important distinction between the outstanding, the OK, and the bad. Much of the weakness displayed by our country’s youth in international test scores is linked, I suggest, to a niggling concern to achieve the face-saving half-step: the B- that becomes a ticket to membership in the middle class.
This should be changed. A starker standard would clarify the picture of our students’ abilities, and at the same time shock the students out of their B- complacency. Bs and Ds and plusses and minuses should be eliminated. Only three grades should be used: the A, the C and the F.
This always produces a shocked silence, with sometimes a doubtful laugh or two. (They have read Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” the week before, and some of them probably think I am pulling their leg.) No one seems to be listening as I expand on the advantages of such a policy. The grade A would reacquire the luster it has lost through overuse, for it would only be given for work of truly exceptional merit. The abler members of the huge second class would feel a new incentive to distinguish themselves, for they could no longer be content with an invidious comparison of their B to the C below them. At the same time, the air of disgrace that presently attaches to a C would vanish, because it would simply designate the great majority of respectable but unremarkable students. C would once again mean what it is supposed to mean: average.
Finally, the portion of the student body that is really not competent to do college work at all would no longer be strung along with D plusses. They would be out.
But the growing murmurs tell me it is time to let the other foot fall. “Of course,” I say, “Kant is only arguing for one’s right to express this opinion ‘as a scholar before the reading public,’ not as someone entrusted with ‘a particular civil post or office.’ As a teacher at a public institution where everyone agrees to use the present grading scale, I’d be fired if I tried to implement this A-C-F system. So don’t worry!’” Amid uneasy laughter and some sullen looks, we move on.
(Out of curiosity I checked with the dean of my college. She told me that the University Code indeed forbids the adoption of any grading scale other than the one approved for use throughout the university and community college system of Nevada.)
One possible disadvantage of my scale is that it could lend itself to abuse more readily than the present one. It seems to require a degree of clairvoyance on the grader’s part to ensure that justice is done. Two of the best students in my discussion groups last semester were from ethnic minorities. Unlike some of their white, middle-class classmates, they were extremely motivated to succeed. Both of them put great mental energy into their first assignments and produced papers of real distinction; but both papers contained many small errors of English usage. I am afraid that, forced to decide between an A and a C, a less enlightened professor than I would have given them the lower grade. So, if only as a safeguard against such injustice, there is something to be said for the contours and shading that plusses and minuses give.
But what a glorious dream! What a splash of cold water! What a kick in the pants to the colleges of education that have fostered so much mush!
I’m not even sure I would prefer my own idea in the end. I just want to discuss it.
Louis W. Marvick is a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches French and Core Humanities, Foreign Languages and Literature (100). He can be reached at email@example.com.