I have a question.
What else, other than students, comes to mind when thinking about what we give letter grades to?
If you’re like me, you are currently picturing a rather large bovine, a gallon of milk and perhaps a carton of eggs. These things are all agricultural products, intentionally farmed for sale and consumption. Giving these products letter grades makes sense – it helps assure people of the quality of the food they are eating. When it comes to students, grades serve a rather more sinister agenda.
We grade students the way we grade livestock because we expect them to serve the same purpose. The top scorers go on to serve the most revered roles in society – they are put on track to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, bankers and other similar pillars of society. They become the prime ribeye and sirloin, the T-bone and the Porterhouse. Everyone who falls short of top marks finds themselves all but relegated to pursuits our society deems less noble – the service industry, the military, etc. They fill in the spectrum of the leftovers, from stew meat and hotdogs to dog food and glue. They serve a necessary purpose, but society sees them as rough and utilitarian at best, and gross at worst.
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I am, as silly as it might sound to say, the human equivalent of grade-A beef. Between my middle class household and parents who hold three higher level college degrees between them, I was on track for good grades and university education from the day I was born. That’s the thing about grades – they are far more reflective of what we face outside the classroom and what the system expects before we even set foot in a school than they are of what we actually do as students.
I’m sick and tired of being treated like a big, fat, juicy prime rib-to-be. I’m tired of the emails about honors societies and opportunities based on my GPA. I’m tired of knowing that the $15,000 a year I receive in scholarship is based on the value that the university and the society think I hold based on my grades. That money is literally based solely on the fact that I am grade-A. The university is paying for the value they think I hold based on the letters assigned to me over a four-year period of my life that is a glorified livestock inspection.
The reason we treat all of our students like livestock from the day they set foot in an educational institution is that the neo-liberal economics that we have embraced since the industrial revolution has been taken too far. We apply the idea that things are worth the value they create for an economy to people while refusing to measure value in any terms other than short term cash profit.
Supply and demand are great when you are applying them to an ideal economy with equal opportunity and reasonable wealth distribution. The U.S. is as far from ideal as can be. Generations of racism, poverty and exploitation of our most vulnerable have yielded a system in which it is so difficult to improve one’s place in society that it’s often not worth trying.
Solving the larger socioeconomic problems plaguing us is a project that touches every aspect of how we live, work and govern. A relatively easy first step when it comes to education is to quit assessing children, teens and young adults like cattle headed for the market. Instead, we should be using a more holistic approach that emphasizes creativity, curiosity, effort and learning rather than performance. If you value students as human beings, all equally capable of making a meaningful contribution to society, you don’t need letters to sort them into those destined for esteem, those destined for service and those destined to suffer just so we can prop up a flawed economy.
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Aidan Rhodes (he/him) is a journalism major from Flagstaff, Arizona. He is a passionate chef, athlete and writer.