Being something of a perfectionist, I’ve always had to varying degrees “grade anxiety” about my schoolwork. Insofar as mere numbers are concerned, I did “OK” at New St. Andrews College in my B.A. work and I’m doing “Very Well” at the University of Dallas in my M.A. work. Still, I was very much heartened when my Medieval philosophy professor this past term said before our mid-term exam that we shouldn’t worry too much about our grades because there’s not necessarily a correlation between grades and understanding. I’ve thought about this particularly in connection with my B.A. work. One of my co-workers at that time, who had something like a 2.7 in his own studies, told me that he would kill to have a 3.4. And yet, being the kind of person I am, graduating with a 3.4 strikes me as borderline mediocre.
But then there’s this to consider. I learned so much at NSA and had the whole world opened up to me in ways that have enriched my life beyond the ability of words to convey. Accordingly, I have asked myself several times since I left NSA what exactly the numbers “3.4″ convey about my intellectual abilities or my understanding of the materials I studied. How can a quantity capture the quality of the education I received, or of the materials I today produce as a result of that education? I’m not railing against the idea of standards, of course, and surely it has to be admitted that grades are a rather convenient way to measure how well one meets a certain pre-determined criterion, and also a rather convenient way to transmit that information to, say, other schools. Still, what do they really show about me? Is anything really important being said about my person by the numbers “3.4″? To be sure, those numbers have disqualified me from certain scholarships which require, say, a “3.7″ or higher, but again, what of any real importance do numbers say about me? Ok, now to the point of this post.
Neil Postman (Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, pg. 13) points out that the idea of attaching numeric value (grades) to the academic work of students was unheard of until one William Farish introduced it at Cambridge University in 1792. Postman says that the “idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality” (ibid.). He continues
To say that someone should be doing better work because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man’s essay on the rise of capitalism is an A- and that man’s is a C+ would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson. It makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did. Our understanding of what is real is different. (ibid.).
This is but one of many examples Postman gives of how technology – the tools we create to manage and control our lives – carry with them implicit assumptions about human nature, about the world, and about our relationship with the world. The mechanical clock created an entirely different concept of time than had existed before its invention, and profoundly changed the world by making it possible to cut up the day, package it into neat little bundles, and standardize work itself. Without the clock, it’s doubtful whether capitalism could ever have been born. Similarly, the printing press radically changed the idea of what books were, what reading was, and what the role of the individual reader to the rest of the world should be. Television and computers have changed our understanding information, of freedom, of learning, and of communal speech. Grades, on Postman’s reading, have performed the same sort of transformation of our ideas of knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage: “To a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number” (ibid., pg. 14).
When I first started thinking about what, if anything, “3.4″ (or even my current “almost 3.8″) says about me as a person, I immediately also began to wonder how intellectual work had been evaluated before the rise of the technology of grading. Now that Postman has informed me that there was no such thing as grades until 1792, my curiosity about pre-grade standards of evaluation has heightened all the more.