Ask a Teacher: Are Grades Only a Means to an End?
Q: Are grades only a means to an end?
A: A few weeks back, an interested reader sent in a great question regarding my post What Surprises You Most About Teenagers? For the record, this reader was not my mother. That being said, in deference to their impeccable taste, I will now (humbly) take up the task of providing an answer to the question of whether students view grades as just a means to an end.
To provide some context: the post in question noted teenagers’ impressive efficiency in accomplishing defined, discrete tasks, and suggested a connection between this faculty, and what I consider an often-excessive focus on letter grades. It therefore walked a fine line between admiration and despair, respecting your agility amid a complex series of intermediate obstacles, while also displaying my concern with the way this subtends a “grade-as-goal” mentality. The problem is a muddled means/ends relationship, wherein powerful means (efficiency, pragmatism, multi-tasking) are, by necessity, developed from and enlisted by suspect ends (quantifiable systems of evaluation, like grades).
Let me break it down (cue the beat): my students seem more and more exclusively concerned with every point that doesn’t go their way. This is a subjective generalization, but I will stand behind it, because I think it’s true, and more importantly, because I believe this mentality comes at the cost of learning. It confuses symbols for symbolized qualities, or letters for learning. However, please note that this is more of a commentary on the contemporary moment in education than an indictment of teenagers.
Let me underscore this point by returning to means/ends, and the question at hand. Our reader asked whether students might consider grades as just another means to an end, as opposed to an end in and of themselves. To answer directly: Yes, I think this is true. Without qualification, I do think that students see grades as waypoints on a longer journey. That is, not as final ends. You are entirely pragmatic about grades and their actual relationship (or lack thereof) to learning. I suspect that a near-total majority would concede that grades are only important in some broader progression: the narrative that traces life through good grades, college admission, career, and some kind of resultant life fulfillment.
So, for example, I read user comments that showed genuine frustration with the way teachers, in particular, often describe grades dismissively. I did not want to give this impression. You and I both know, I hope, that if I were to argue that grades don’t matter at all, not only would I expose myself as a massive hypocrite (I do, after all, assign grades, even though I would prefer not to), but you would rightly dismiss my argument out of hand, because you deal with the consequences of grades every single school day.
My concern lies more generally with the social pervasiveness of these means/ends structures, and their effect on our intellectual culture. The fact is, we have more institutional expectations than ever before. While these are often rightly viewed as means to an end (that scholarship, or admission to that school), I think they ultimately work to impose a means/end narrative on you that is misleading at best. And at worst, it collapses the space between one test score and the final horizon of human happiness. While this collapse is occurring, incidentally, real learning is not being discussed.
Basically, as these individual hurdles multiply in number, they form a sort of intricate, high-pressure, and perpetual mind-game that demands participation in its own terms. It is hard to focus on the broader significance of the race when every hurdle assumes a life-altering significance. And again (hopefully this is clear), this is not the fault of teenagers. Your concern with grades is a survival mechanism, and these adaptations exhibit incredible inner reserves. Class grades, standardized test scores, extra-curricular activities—you juggle these things with a dexterity that floors me. And, as someone who spent six years studying at the International Clown College in Paris, I do not say this lightly. (Yes, I'm kidding.)
But what if there is no defined "goal"? Life often presents zero gravity situations that have no clear ends or means. The most important decisions operate in a supremely ambiguous space. There will be no recourse to a predefined, externally-mandated course of action. You will need to construct ends and means for yourselves, and these will involve serious ethical considerations that require the kind of emergent creativity that I fear is being neglected in the current narrative. Moreover, emergent creativity requires an internalized base of knowledge from which to draw, and my fear is that the way you are forced to think about grades, in a narrative that is not your own, displaces your energies and talents, and directs them toward someone else’s means, for someone else’s ends.
Would you prefer to go to a school that didn't give out grades?
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.
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Related post: Ask a Teacher: What Surprises You Most About Teenagers?