The Ethics of Grading Students


Grades were pretty arbitrary, as they always are in one sense or another. I was wrestling with the ethics of grading students at the time [1966]--which involved the general problem of sitting in judgment upon my fellow man. Little enough of this testing and grading game has anything whatsoever to do with education but it is put upon one by the passion for fragmentation which flourishes in our schools. Now I give all my students "A"s automatically. They like it. (Most of them do. Some are angry, "I worked like hell for my A, and he got an A too, and by doing nothing." The old 17th century Mercantilist ethic kept alive by and within the academe: If you can fuck up somebody else, you must be doing some good for yourself.) This risks passing (indeed with the same, the highest marks) totally incompetent students. But then, of course, no sensible academic really believes that grades separate the good from the better from the best students anyway.

These categories (good, better, best) relate better to their original context--from the Montgomery Ward Catalog--than they do to the environs of American higher edu­cation, to which they were later applied. Maybe they are good for standards of academic grading; they are not best. Nothing in the catalog, of course, is bad. That is the great image of consumer and consumed America: nothing is bad--the worst anything can get is good. Then its only a question of whether it attains the loftier qualities of better and best, or whether it just falls short of sheer excellence. It's like America rolling from coast to coast on Interstate highway divided greenswards, or Sunday after­noon, when the greens and fairways of some eternal golf classic roll out before our eyes in an image of our land.

So what's going to happen if everyone gets branded with excellence-or at least with passing fair? We shall simply have to find other, more apt standards if we want to judge their talents. Some system that works, that tells us about a student what we really want to know--as the present one does not. Until then, give them all A's, and let them all have Ph.D.s, and then someone will begin to ask for other human criteria for assessing value, intelligence, relevance, or whatever (like whether or not the person is a good teacher, or an eminent scholar).

It is quite clear now that a system of grading, and degree granting as far as it attempts to sort out people and their performances on these or any other reasonable basis is a total, catastrophic failure. This is really an intellectual issue only in terms of the fifties mentality. I mean, Albert Camus raised most of the ethical and moral questions about judging fellow human beings in The Fall, and explored their implications with regard to the self elsewhere. And a whole generation is just going to stop doing that sort of bullshit. They are quitting to the left and to the right, today and tomorrow. And we on the fringes of critical years now join them when we are able, when we begin to see again through free eyes of beautiful, self-reliant naivete. But it takes, among other things, sensitivity and time.

Kurt von Meier
Personal notes, 1968