By Brendan Murphy ’23
The long-popular campaign to eliminate grades from American schools seems to have gained even more traction in the last few years, championed primarily by vocal teachers like the University of Mary Washington’s Jesse Stommel, who argues in his articles Why I Don’t Grade and How to Ungrade that America’s grading process is a “hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another.” He goes on to recommend that teachers who find grading tedious should simply give it up, and he also places extraordinary faith in the idea that students—even younger ones—are naturally inclined to work hard for the sake of learning itself.
This idea that our children possess a natural inclination towards intellectual rigor is one that I find to be particularly harmful—an idea that, if widely used to implement educational reform, could create a generation of children who never learn how to work hard on unpleasant tasks. It would be wonderful if students, especially in the trying years of middle and high school, were so enthralled by their schoolwork that they required no additional motivation beyond love of knowledge to keep them coming to class and paying attention to their teachers. Imagine a world in which sixteen year-olds were so enraptured by the graphs and functions of their pre-calculus classes that they pored over their textbooks in their free time, aching for a better understanding of this newly-discovered discipline. We’d be saved! There would be no more need for homework, tests, or grades. Heck, we might as well chuck the teacher out as well. The children would simply devour the necessary textbooks themselves and practice the inside problems until they’d mastered the subject all on their own, powered by their own thirst for knowledge. In this world, grading is indeed the crushing ball-and-chain that teachers like Jesse purport it to be, and freeing the precocious teens would allow them to pursue their studies unimpeded.
Unfortunately, it does not seem as if this alternate reality in which youngsters are naturally inclined to work hard on unpleasant tasks has any chance of becoming a reality. It boils down to this: it seems that children need (real) consequences to motivate them to do things that are not immediately satisfying or engaging, like schoolwork. When sharing this idea, I am often hit with the response, “Well, what about sports? Kids will spend hours kicking a soccer ball into a net without being forced.” This, however, is an entirely different scenario due to one simple fact: kicking a soccer ball into a net provides an instant hit of satisfaction and adrenaline that solving a complex math problem will not provide for most young kids. In other words, kids have fun playing soccer. They do not (in the vast majority of cases) have fun doing math, a fact that is unlikely to be changed by any amount of friendly encouragement.
Just to clarify, it seems obvious that love of learning is a real thing, and many exceptional students are driven in part by this factor. However, from my experience, this ‘love of learning’ is usually fostered toward the end of high school or the beginning of one’s college career. There are very few seventh graders who love doing their schoolwork, even for one subject. It seems then that in order for this passion to be properly cultivated, younger children need to be forced to work on subjects that are simply not enjoyable for them until they grow accustomed to working hard and slowly realize for themselves the value of what they’re being taught. And no, we won’t do any favors by allowing our children to only study courses about which they are already naturally passionate. There are many (dare I say) “duller” subjects, such as economics or history, in which a basic understanding can provide for a child a valuable trove of skills and knowledge to help them navigate the world ahead of them—skills they miss out on when, given a choice, they inevitably pick a more attractive course. In a world that is increasingly filled with helicopter parents and participation trophies, the tough consequences provided by grading are an invaluable piece of the process in which naturally self-indulgent children develop into functioning, hard-working, confident adults who can, in turn, continue to move our society forward.