Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, May 12, 2006


I got through another fifty pages of Unconditional Parenting without finding much to disagree with. One point that raised some questions in me, though, was his critique of grades in the classroom. He describes how grades tend to undermine a genuine interest in learning, and dampen a desire to take on greater challenges, in exactly the same dynamic he sees in other external rewards undermining internal motivations.

I'm certain that what he describes is true, because I saw so much of it around me at school, especially in college. Especially at Duke University, where so many of the kids came from the privileged families in which love was very conditionally based on one's success, it was common to see a very shallow approach to learning. I remember one of the Duke kids in an SKS meeting saying, "I came to the SKS because I was tired of seeing notes transferred from the teacher's book to the students notebook without a bit of learning happening in the process." Once students become obsessed with the grades, they start to lose sight of what the grade is supposed to represent: real learning.

The curious thing is that I vividly remember both sides of this experience in my own life. I remember being excruciatingly grade-conscious before I was even out of grade school. My parents expected me to make high grades, and I did not disappoint them. However, I also had nothing but contempt for anyone who would ask the teacher, "Is this going to be on the test?" I hated people who didn't really try to learn material and who only went after the grade. I couldn't even understand how anyone with any self-respect could even let the question cross his lips. It's tantamount to saying, "Can I be stupid now? Can I ignore what you're trying so hard to teach me right now? Because, like, I don't give a shit about this, ok?" It was even more baffling to me that teachers would actually answer the question. (Only later did I realize that the teachers, also, were only interested in the grade . . . because the grades of the students was how they were measured in their success as a teacher.) Although I wanted to have the grades, I still cared about what I was actually learning.

So how is it that I had both of these dynamics going on at the same time? How could I care so much about grades, and still be contemptuous of anyone who cared just about grades? I'm still not sure, but I have a couple ideas. Partially, I think it was behavior modelled from my parents. In my family, reading and discussing was a primary form of entertainment. Reading was fun long before it was ever work. Both my parents were (and still are) problem-solvers, and not a day went by that they did not fix or build or write or study something. In short, I think my attitude towards learning was instilled well before the education system had a chance to ruin it.

Many people object to the lack of grades because they think it will leave their kids less prepared for the rigors of "real-life", where people compete with each other and there are real consequences for the quality of your work. I bought into that at the time, but in retrospect it seems patently false. I vividly remember starting in my first lab job after graduating from college, and having the sudden, stupid realization: "There are no grades here! But . . . but . . . how will I know I'm doing well if there are no grades?" For the first time in a looooong time, I had to navigate the world without the safety of well-defined, somewhat arbitrary yardsticks. "Doing well" suddenly was an open question, full of psychological subtlety (e.g. "well, you damn well better make the boss happy or your screwed, regardless of what you actually produce") and philosophical implications (e.g. "well, now I know what the boss wants, but is that what I want? What really matters, anyway?")

I am not completely against grades . . . I am very glad the Waldorf school does not use them in the lower grades, but I don't object to the fact that they do use them in the high school. In fact, I really don't think the problem is with grades per se; there is nothing wrong with quantifying performance. It's the glorification of the grade that creates the problem.


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