Debate Magazine

Certifying 14-year-old Poets

By Stevemiranda

I received a really thoughtful message from a former student, who is now a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard and teaches a few sections of calculus to undergrads. He’s responding to yesterday’s post about grades.

He writes,

I don’t disagree with your three claims about what affect the +/- grades will have, in this case. But I do actually think that stiffening grades, just like eliminating grades (as you propose) can achieve the same objective, namely giving students permission to fail. The main problem with [our former school] having 40+ valedictorians, as I saw it, was that it made the consequences of even a single B seem dire. As a result, students begin to believe that it is much better to barely scrape an A in every single class than to exceed expectations in even one of them. A tougher grading system, in which many students receive poor grades on a regular basis and literally no one is perfect, does two things: it permits students to fail (since everyone does sometimes), and it makes it acceptable to exceed expectations (since there are better grades available). The valedictorian would no longer be a person who never made a mistake, it would be a person who did something remarkable.

As a case study: Caltech is one of the few American colleges that has a tough grading system. I have heard the following from many students at Caltech: many people, even most people, fail a course eventually. But it isn’t a disaster. It means you didn’t learn the material well enough, and that you should try again. This is certainly preferable to what [our former school] does, where failure sounds like a catastrophe.

* * *

Reading this reminded me of one crucial aspect of grades that often goes overlooked: grading systems turn classrooms from places of education (from the Latin educe, which means “to draw out”) into places of certification.

I do not mean to imply that education is always great and certification is always bad. Both are useful, depending on the context. For example, I believe that surgeons, airline pilots, and home hospice workers should all be certified. People in those professions should have a specific set of knowledge and skills, and experts in those fields should objectively assess their proficiency.

I could even be persuaded that undergraduate students at Caltech pursuing engineering degrees should be certified. Given the more advanced brain development of a 20-year-old, given the fact that Caltech is a rigorous intellectual community and that students freely choose to attend that institution—they know what they’re getting themselves in for—it seems reasonable for experts in mathematics to objectively assess whether students have obtained mastery of specific concepts.

But here’s a question: should a 14-year-old who is forced to take a required class in poetry be subjected to a process of certification?

Given their brain development and the fact that traditional schooling places kids in required activities, should a 14-year-old—or an 8-year-old, or 16-year-old—be subjected to a process of certification for anything?

There are profound differences between the developmental needs of kids in K-12 versus those in higher education. Young kids need to be in environments in which they can try new things, experiment, grow up, discover who they are.

They need teachers to draw out the genius within them. Higher education, for those who choose that path, is a place where that genius can get refined into certified expertise.

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