In a Utopian World Colleges Would Not Issue Grades

by Reid Fitzsimons

We’ve had the pleasure and honor of being friends with a remarkable young person, now 41 or 42, for 10 years. She is a very accomplished professional and makes good money but lives frugally in an inner city area. She spends much if not most of her money mentoring and supporting young woman “of color,” both in the US and in poor countries. She is the type of person who would, and in fact has, put everything on hold and travel to the a third word country to help someone in crisis. She seeks no fanfare whatsoever and, it should be noted, is able to do what she does largely because the expensive tastes to which we are so accustomed do not interest her.
A number of years ago she expressed some frustration with one of her girls, perhaps 15 or 16, because she was doing poorly in school and was functionally illiterate. Reading was not important to her because, “Reading is for white people” she said. That is a significant and even tragic statement and mentality, obviously, but not the subject of this article (recall that one goal of slave owners was prohibiting literacy among their chattel). Several years later I asked our friend how this particular girl was doing. She replied she’s doing well and going to college. My response was predictable, an “oh great, so she buckled down and learned to read.” To which she replied her girl never really became literate, but “everyone knows the college she’s attending isn’t a real college.” Exposing my own naiveté at the time, I have to admit I didn’t realize there were colleges that weren’t real.

Over the past several years our excessively wealthy and privileged university attending youth have fomented innumerable social justice eruptions, often accompanied by lists of demands: more programs and personnel dedicated to diversity, race based segregated facilities, exclusion of certain groups, protection from disagreeable ideas and thoughts. Our elite dandies are invigorated by fury and a sense of victimization, but seem devoid of introspection- certainly no inconsistency between $5 lattes and possessing the latest smart phones while raging over income inequality.
On several occasions, usual toward the bottom of the lists of demands, I’ve noted something along the lines of grade forgiveness, which seems to entail expunging school records of failing grades and the like. I wish I had bookmarked them at the time, but I’m fairly sure “grade forgiveness” was included on lists from the Univ. of Missouri and Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin, it should be noted, was founded as a progressive institution in 1833, unlike Ivy League universities which more recently discovered their progressive angst. Presently annual tuition at Oberlin is a little over $50,000.
Grades are almost exclusively viewed from a student-centric mindset. In other words, grading is seen as providing input to the student, in theory an evaluation of their understanding of learning. From this perspective, a theoretical diligent student awarded a “C” will be motivated to apply themselves more fully to achieve the course goals as demonstrated by an improved grade. I assume, and hope, from a university administrators standpoint grading also is a way to measure the effectiveness of their instruction and to assure that their product- graduating students- have proven their competency, essentially a quality control mechanism.
Certainly there are numerous curricula where universities have an obligation to society to ensure competency- medicine and health and engineering readily come to mind. There are lesser areas of study where full competency doesn’t really matter but some level of comprehension would be helpful. Law might fit in this category. While I am a believer in the virtues of a true liberal education- the curricula of philosophy, political science, cultural anthropology, and classics are examples- fields involving pursuits of the mind more than hands, so to speak, these seem to be on the decline in terms of the resultant product: a broadly educated person who can reason and view problems and issues objectively. Finally we arrive at the lowest strata, the various “studies” programs.
Realistically there are no true edifying characteristics of such courses of study. No one is going to leave the “Queer Studies” program at Hampshire College (classes include Queering the Renaissance, Bodies and Souls in History, and Queer Fictions of Race) equipped to discover new methods of crop development or innovations in bringing potable water to poor African villages. No one is going to complete their degrees in Gender and Feminist Studies (with classes such as Holiness, Heresy, and the Body and Black Queer Theory) at Pitzer College ready to design that new prosthetic device or engineer new techniques in affordable sanitation. Similar to JFK’s proposition, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” it is reasonable to question the appropriateness of devoting societal resources to such self-indulgent tripe. The fact that we are a society so obscenely rich that we can partake in such egocentric vanity should give us pause.
So what does a person with a degree in “______Studies” actually do? I have some idea based upon 19 years as a government employee, both Federal and NY State. As a preface I must mention that, contrary to some conservative narratives, there are many government workers that really do work hard and provide meaningful services. With that said, there are a whole lot of government employees who have a nebulous existence. Typically they are found in administration and management and, while their titles may require collegiate credentials, their actual positions don’t demand much beyond the ability to talk, perhaps write, and have their lips planted firmly on someone’s buttocks. These are the assistants to the deputy directors (sometimes the deputy directors themselves), the professional committee members, people that investigate the workers, the public relations staff, and so on. In the many years I worked as a medical practitioner for people with mental retardation, I witnessed moronic decree after decree that appeared somewhere from the administration On High. For example, some well compensated management types agonized year after year as to what to call our residents- clients, consumers, service recipients, individuals we serve, to name a few (I always thought “residents” was pretty accurate and respectful). Of course along with each change came a flurry of memos, seminars, and in­-service training. Needless to say, tax dollars were always generously involved.
I imagine most diversity/inclusion jobs involve such things are writing “diversity statements,” disseminating the good news of victimization, conducting training in how people are being treated unfairly, and creating rules and policies detailing diversity/inclusion and a means to compel compliance. None of these endeavors actually require an education or qualification beyond being angry and easily offended. Hence, returning to the premise of this article, though it would be contrary to tradition, there really is no reason for Swarthmore College to have a grading system in place for an enrollee in the English Dept. course, “Queering the History of Emotions.” If a student majoring in Women, Gender & Sexuality at the Univ. of Virginia received an “A” or a “F” in the 3 credit “Issues in LGBTQ Studies” class, who cares? On the other hand, if a civil engineering student doesn’t grasp the concepts in the University’s “Structural Mechanics” course, we should be concerned. With the former a dainty elite feminist might hear something that makes her cry; with the latter a bridge collapsing might make people die.
If universities (and progressive society as a whole) were to be truthful, “…Studies” degrees and the like really shouldn’t require college attendance at all, which in many ways is itself elitist and representative of all they deplore. In a utopian world, degrees that offer only egocentric benefit could simply be awarded. Perhaps a questioner could be completed on-line covering such topics as, “How do you identify yourself outside of the white patriarchal norm,” “In what ways do you perceive personal identity victimization,” and “To what degree are you outraged by fascist alt-right ubiquity in American culture?” Of course, some type of application fee should be involved.
Sadly this won’t happen because our higher education is premised upon a lot of money being collected. How else would the Univ. of South Carolina be able to pay its Chief Diversity Officer $125,000? When it comes to higher education there is no Federally subsidized student loan too great if it allows university administrators to feed well at the trough of faux enlightenment. Furthermore, administrators whose job is to get students riled up wouldn’t do well without the students. Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came? Besides, under Obama era policy, people who aspire to “Public Service” are eligible for loan forgiveness programs.
With a “…Studies” degree in hand, the world of Diversity and Inclusion is wide open. How satisfying it would be to dictate the cultural appropriation standards of a college’s meal program, for example. Upon discovering that corn (“maize”) was a New World (can you say that?) product, it could be declared that corn dogs, which include corn flour, will be prohibited to all but those who identify as Indigenous American students. However, at a committee meeting someone suggested that corn dogs that are tofu based might have a favorable environmental impact, hence the policy will be revised to allow for vegetarian corn dogs as long as a warning of possible cultural appropriation is included with each veggie corn dog. What could be more satisfying and empowering than using your college education to solve the most critical problems of our times?

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