I have a question.
Besides the students, what do you think of when we think about what we give letter grades for?
Right now, if you’re like me, imagine a pretty large beef, a gallon of milk, and maybe a carton of eggs. These are all agricultural products that are intentionally grown for sale and consumption. It makes sense to give letters to these products – this will help ensure the quality of the foods they eat. When it comes to students, grades serve a rather sinister agenda.
We rate students the way we rate cattle because we expect them to serve the same purpose. The top scorers continue to play the most revered roles in society – they are employed as lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, bankers, and other similar pillars of society. They become prime ribeye and sirloin, T-bone and porterhouse. Anyone who doesn’t get the top marks will have to indulge in almost less noble pursuits – the service industry, the military, etc. They fill the spectrum of leftovers, from stew and hot dogs to dog food and glue. They serve a necessary purpose, but society sees them as rough and functional at best and gross at worst.
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Silly as it sounds, I’m the human equivalent of Class A beef. Between my middle-class household and parents who have three college degrees, I’ve been on my way to good grades and college education from the day I was born. That’s the thing about grades – they reflect a lot more of what we see outside of the classroom and what the system expects before we even enter school than what we actually do as students.
I’m tired of being treated like a big, fat, juicy prime rib-to-be. I’m fed up with emails about honor societies and opportunities based on my GPA. I’m tired of knowing that the $ 15,000 per year I receive as a scholarship is based on the value that the university and society believe my grades hold to hold. That money is literally just based on the fact that I’m grade A. The university pays for the value I believe it holds based on the letters assigned to me over the four years of my life that represent a glorified animal inspection.
The reason we all treat our students like cattle from the day they enter an educational institution is because the neoliberal economy we have embraced since the industrial revolution has gone too far. We apply the idea that things are worth the value they create for an economy and refuse to measure value in terms other than short-term monetary gain.
Supply and demand are great when you apply them to an ideal economy with equal opportunities and fair distribution of wealth. The US is far from ideal. Generations of racism, poverty and the exploitation of our most vulnerable have resulted in a system where it is so difficult to improve your place in society that it is often not worth trying.
Solving the larger socio-economic problems we face is a project that touches every aspect of our life, work and governance. A relatively simple first step in terms of education is to stop evaluating children, teenagers and young adults like cattle going to market. Instead, we should take a more holistic approach where creativity, curiosity, effort and learning are paramount, rather than achievement. If you value students as people who are all equally capable of making meaningful contributions to society, you don’t need letters to sort them into those destined for appreciation, those destined for service, and those who are destined to suffer just so that we can have a flawed economy.
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Aidan Rhodes (he / she) is a major journalist from Flagstaff, Arizona. He is a passionate cook, athlete and writer.
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