Learning for the sake of learning

The meaning of Spartan life

Jacob Martin

I stopped by one of my adviser’s offices last week to say hello and catch-up a bit after not seeing him since December. Invariably, we talked about my semester schedule, my future plans and our favorite topic, Cleveland sports and just how awful the Browns really are. But in our discussion of my spring schedule, I told him I was auditing a course this semester.

For those who don’t know what an audit is, it’s when you sit in on a class, make an agreement with the professor as to how much work you will do durin0g the semester, have the credits show up on your transcript, but receive no actual credits toward graduation or a grade for the course. You audit a class purely because you want to learn the material.

My advisor liked this idea, offering a brief anecdote about how much more he enjoyed taking courses in college if they weren’t for a grade. After speaking with him, I asked myself, is our academic structure inherently flawed?

Can—or should—we do away with grades?

What if there were no grades or exams? What if students’ progress was assessed by a means other than grades? One proposed idea I’ve heard is much stricter admissions criteria for colleges but, once admitted, students never get graded.

While a system of grading offers a benchmark for gauging a student’s progress and ability, I feel it is a contrived and intrinsically faulty system. With grades come a battery of expectations, pressures, aspirations and impetuses on student behavior and performance. Pure and true learning can become obscured by the burden of getting A’s in classes.

Now this isn’t the first time I’ve said something radical in this space, but maybe a “gradeless” formal education system is not a total impossibility. I had a professor last semester who began our first class session with the final exam to “get it out of the way.” He too believes grades are somewhat unessential to learning and measuring one’s gained knowledge.

In the film “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon’s character says to a Harvard graduate student, “You dropped 150 grand on an education you could’ve gotten with $1.50 in late charges at a public library.” I’m not suggesting we all drop out of college and become library mice, scurrying about life as confused and misguided as Will Hunting did. But perhaps there is some truth in that statement.

The real question here is what’s the difference between schooling (formal education) and learning (informal education)?

A professor of mine once asked me what I thought education was. After reciting some unreflective and poorly thought-out definition of education, she told me her conception of education is “a means to overcome the givens in life.” I like this definition because it speaks to a utilitarian or pragmatic aspect, but also subtly hints at a more subversive, thoughtful distinction between a formal and informal education.

The givens of life include all those things you’ve had no control over since birth, like what social class you are born into and your nationality. Schooling does allow one to transcend these things, but to what avail? I think there is a great importance to formal schooling, but it has many limitations.

I am lucky enough to have a great job: I’ve learned how to operate a forklift, how to interact with coworkers in a professional setting and how to manage the rigidity of 9-5 schedule as such. Here again, I am not suggesting everyone should work a job to gain experience outside the classroom, but I do claim that experience outside of the classroom is crucial to our development as scholars, future leaders and most importantly, human beings.

We can get so wrapped up in grades that we lose sight of why we’re in a certain class, or even why we’re in college at all. After giving some more thought to what education is, I kept thinking of a black box, or an engineering system which is only viewed in terms of its input and output without any knowledge of its internal workings.

College is a black box. Too many of us take our classes and throw everything we’ve got into the semester which culminates in the absurd insanity of final exams. We don’t really care what goes into each course each day of the semester as long as the end result is an “A.”

Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” This is real learning. It is unceremonious, brusque and sometimes humbling. There are no grades to becoming truly educated and acquiring the ability to think clearly and critically and analytically. In the real world, you will never have to produce a term paper, there are no final exams and no one will ever give you a letter grade for your work. You will either be successful the first time or the project will be sent back to you for revision until you get it right or you are fired.

We must be mindful of the bigger picture that is life when thinking about our educations. The goal of learning should simply be to become someone better. Grades should merely be a by-product of becoming competent with the material of a given class. I have always tried to adhere to the wisdom of Mark Twain. While I’m not always successful in this pursuit, so far I haven’t been disappointed.

Jacob Martin would like to know: How much do you care about grades? Anyone with comments, feedback, feel free to email him at jem189@case.edu.