When we grade our students, we teach them that their worth is based on how well they obey orders and please people in positions of authority.
I have been teaching at Concordia for three years now, and every year the one part of my job that I dread the most is grading. I don’t hate it because of the work involved, but because I know it contributes to everything I despise about late capitalism. Grading reinforces classism, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression by obscuring the very real differences in privilege and access that affect how students perform, how much time they’re able to dedicate to their schoolwork, and how connected they feel to the material covered in class. Are they a single parent trying to work a full-time job while also studying full-time? Are they suffering from mental health issues as a result of past trauma or abuse? Are they a recent immigrant in the process of learning the language as well as new cultural norms?
Instead of acknowledging these differences and the forces that divide and oppress us, we tell our students that they are being ranked according to their “merit” or intelligence. In doing so, we mystify the structures that play such a fundamental role in determining our opportunities in life.
In a capitalist society, the less money you have in the bank, the less your life matters. By assigning students a grade, we prepare them for, and also normalize, a system that ranks some human lives above others. We may think we are teaching our students about math, or science, or history, but we also must acknowledge the way we are teaching them to think of themselves.
When we grade our students, we teach them that their worth is based on how well they obey orders and please people in positions of authority. We teach them that competition with their peers is normal and natural, and that it is never okay to fail. Grading is billed as a way to “motivate” students to succeed, and yet we ignore that this usually only works for people who were already predisposed to succeed in an unfair system.
Academics have some of the best tools available to access and develop critiques of meritocracy and capitalist ideology, and yet our institutions continue to reproduce the same old hierarchies and structures. We ought to know better. If we actually want to encourage learning and experimentation, we have to directly challenge and resist the systems that render us complicit. That means fighting for diversity in our schools and universities, demanding the necessary resources to provide our students with the qualitative feedback they deserve, and pushing for the abolition of grades and GPAs in favour of a more just and holistic system.
Some schools have already experimented with alternative models to grading. A high school in New Hampshire,[i] as well as a variety of both private and public colleges and universities like Evergreen State College in Washington[ii] and Hampshire College in Massachusetts,[iii] replace grades with written evaluations detailing each student’s progress. Rhode Island’s Brown University offers a pass-fail option for all of their classes. [iv] Montessori schools also do away with grades while providing an education based on self-directed, hands-on, project-based learning.[v] Unfortunately, these options are typically only available to the select few who can afford private schooling. These models also do not necessarily challenge the underlying role of the education system, which is to create docile workers who are ranked according to their expected productivity.
For more radical alternatives, we can look to the autonomous Zapatista schools in Chiapas, where teachers are democratically elected and education is based around the pillars of democracy, freedom, and social justice, and tailored to the specific needs of each community.[vi] We can also learn from the revolutionary schools in Rojava, where top-down learning is replaced by collective problem-solving, and disciplinary silos are rejected in favour of a well-rounded education.[vii] Importantly, both systems teach indigenous histories and languages, rather than simply reproducing a colonial ideology.
The fact that these alternatives are typically only able to exist in areas where people have fought for independence from governments and private interests should not be ignored and is indicative of just how deeply intertwined the education system is with capitalist economic and political structures. In order to change one, we must change them all. As Paulo Freire puts it, “the critical and dynamic view of the world, strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.” [viii]