All of the courses of study in our college will be small seminars, with an average of ten students each. There will be a great deal of individual instruction, of course, but no large lecture courses or Teaching Assistants. The normal course load for each student will be three courses per semester; the normal teaching load for instructors will be three small seminars per semester. Thus, each instructor will teach thirty students each semester. He or she will know them all by name, and over the course of four years, I would expect instructors to get to know a good many of the six hundred students at the college.
Seminars will meet a minimum of two hours a week, though many instructors may prefer to spend more time with the students in formal classes. The work will be extremely demanding, and there will be a great deal of written work in addition to class discussion. Instructors will be expected to read, comment on, and return written work immediately – certainly no later than one week after it is submitted – so that students get constant feedback on what they have written. The goal toward which everyone is striving, student and instructor alike, will be simple and unambiguous – perfection.
This is perhaps a good place to take up the vexing subject of GRADING. No subject – not politics, not sex, not race – is so fraught with emotion as the assigning of grades. Young people with any serious interest at all in schoolwork are conditioned virtually from infancy to seek, cherish, and respond to grades. One personal story will suffice. Shortly after I joined the University of Massachusetts Philosophy Department in 1971, I found myself teaching a huge four hundred student section of Introduction to Philosophy, with a large staff of graduate student TAs. I devised what I thought was a rather exciting course, organized around the theme of the healthy personality in the just state, a rather attractive alternative to the usual snooze through logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. After I had finished describing the theme of the course, a young man roughly in the middle of the sea of students raised his hand. “Aha!” I thought with pleasure, “I have captured their interest.” When I called on him, he asked in a rather flat nasal voice, “Professor Wolff, can you tell us what will be on the final exam?” I was so deflated that without thinking I replied sardonically, “A thousand short answer questions.” There was a gasp from the assembled multitudes, and I realized that I had blundered badly. “No, no,” I rushed to assure them, “that was just a joke.” For the rest of the semester, a sizable fraction of the four hundred remained convinced that the final exam would indeed contain a thousand short answer questions, and when they discovered that it was actually a list of essay questions, with choice, they were seriously bummed. I learned my lesson and never again made a joke about exams or grades.
There are three quite distinct activities that are conflated and confused in the notion of The Grade. These are Critique, Certification, and Ranking. [For a more extended discussion of this subject, see THE IDEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY, Part Two, Chapter One.] Critique is the identification of strengths and weaknesses in a student performance of some sort, for the purpose of helping the student to improve his or her grasp of the activity in question. When I correct the grammar of a student paper, I am offering a critique. When Yo-Yo Ma shows an advanced cello student in a Master Class how to play a phrase of one of the Bach cello suites with greater fidelity to Bach’s style, he is offering s critique. Without critique, education is reduced to feel-good finger painting. The aim of critique is not to enhance the student’s self-esteem, but to improve the student’s performance, and the goal, as I suggested above, is not a pretty good performance, or a slightly above average performance, but perfection. If this seems unnecessarily rigorous, ask yourself this question: Would any self-respecting violinist wish to settle for a performance that was slightly out of tune [but mostly – perhaps 97% -- in tune]? Would any serious apprentice mathematician be content with a proof that is almost valid?
Certification is the evaluation of a student performance for the purpose of determining whether the student shall be admitted to some socially defined role. The Bar Examination certifies prospective lawyers as ready to argue cases in court. The Medical Boards certify medical students as ready to practice medicine. The Doctorate in one of the Arts and Sciences certifies a student as ready to serve as a professor in an accredited college or university. The only relevant question in any certification procedure is whether the applicant does or does not merit certification. There is no such thing as one applicant being more certified than another.
Ranking is the establishment of a linear ordering of the performances of a number of students, for the purpose of arranging them in some hierarchy of relative strength or success of performance. The ONLY purpose of grading is to sort a superfluity of students into a scarcity of desired posts or to assign to a superfluity of applicants a scarcity of desired rewards. There are fewer positions in the handful of highly desired law schools than there are applicants for those positions. There is a similar shortage of openings at the handful of highly desired medical schools and highly desired graduate departments in Arts and Sciences. [You will notice that I say “highly desired,” not “highly desirable” or “elite” or “best.” That is an entirely separate question that need not concern us here.] THEREFORE, undergraduate instructors rank the performances of their students, using letter grades or numerical grades. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO OTHER REASON TO ASSIGN GRADES, ONCE THE PROCESS OF CRITIQUE OR CERTIFICATION IS COMPLETED.
It is not the purpose of our college to certify students as ready to adopt socially defined roles, nor is its purpose to sort them into scarce positions in some other social institution. Therefore, at our college, there will be critique, constant critique, unrelenting critique, but no grades as they are commonly understood. If you strive for perfection, there is no need to be told just how much you have fallen short. Should you achieve it, you will need no instructor to tell you that you have done so.