I loved every moment of my 45 years of university teaching–almost. 98% of the time was amazingly alive, but the 2% devoted to grading threatened to undermine the excitement of learning that had been taking place. My students and I had entered a field in which teaching and learning had become a collaborative effort. Together we had formed a joyful team of learning the skills of reading, dialoging, and assimilating congruent ideas into our individual repertoire of beliefs. But then came test time, and a not-so-subtle adversarial aura crept into the classroom. Now they had to answer my questions, not theirs, and my questions may not have been at all relevant to their interests or learning. Over the years I tried to create tests in whose answers I was sincerely interested. In Philosophy I believe there are no “right” answers. But there are “good” answers: answers that are informed, thoughtful, coherent, and ultimately personal. I found that if the students and I had been successful in creating a vital learning atmosphere, if we had managed to create a common vision of what we were doing and why we were doing it, then the tests and papers they wrote became a form of intimate communication. In a lovely book, The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander tell us that they go so far as to give every student an A on the first day of class. Then they asked their students to write an essay during the next two weeks imagining what they would say at the end of the semester about why they were A students. The idea here, it seems to me, is to give every student (and every person in your life) the unconditional love and respect that will allow them to flourish. Roz puts this beautifully: “In the absence of a vision, we are each driven by our own agenda, finding people whose interests match our own, and inattentive to those with whom we appear to have little in common. We automatically judge our players, workers, and loved ones against our standards, inadvertently pulling the wind from their sails. But with our new practice of granting an ongoing A in all our relationships, we can align ourselves with others, because the A declares and sustains a life-enhancing partnership.”

Certainly there are standards. This was especially relevant to my years as a flight instructor. It was obvious that the only reason for getting into the airplane was so that the student could become a skillful and safe pilot. Any grade less than A was unthinkable. (Who would like to fly with a pilot who had received a C in her flight training?). Again, as the Zander’s say, “a standard becomes a marker that gives the pair (teacher and student) direction. If the student hits the mark, the team is on course,; if not, well, “How fascinating.” The instructor does not personally identify with the standards, nor does the student identify personally with the results of the game.” If a flight student failed his test with the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA officials would be knocking on my door, wondering what kind of a lousy instructor I was.

I felt the same way in my university courses. A good part of my job, I thought, was to share my enthusiasm for entering the worlds of Plato or Lao Tzu or the Buddha or Camus, and igniting a joyful spark of learning in my students. Certainly, there were a few young people with pressing demands on their lives of which I had no knowledge. I could not, therefore, take their lack of engagement with my course personally. Rather than give them an F that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, however, I would suggest at mid-term that they drop the course. The vast majority of my students, however, were prepared for most classes, and came ready for action. I would tell them that if I were certain that they had done the reading, and participated well either verbally or in their written expressions, they would receive a B. I explained that it seemed to me that some few students were truly gifted, and that I would reserve the A grade for them. (I half-joked that if I had to go into another room to read an exciting paper to my wife, that was an automatic A).

This seemed to work pretty well, but of course some of my colleagues disapproved. One teacher bragged about how he had never given a passing grade to a single student of a particular nationality in all of his years of teaching. Others seemed attached to an adversarial role toward their students. The air in some faculty rooms was dense with complaints about stupid or lazy students. These types of teachers thought I was easy, but I am idealistic and perhaps naive enough to believe that if students can get a taste of the delicious flavors of learning, Socrates’ ideal of the teacher as midwife kicks in. The classroom becomes a sacred place where the human soul emerges. And when a midwife assists a woman at the birth of her child, there is no question as to whom the baby belongs.

One thought on “GRADES

  1. Julie Montinieri

    “In the absence of a vision, we are each driven by our own agenda…” — can’t tell you how relevant that quote is for me today.

    Beautiful essay. I was lucky to be a student in your classroom.



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