Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Grade Rant

Those who know me find it difficult to avoid my self-indulgent and slightly condescending speech about what is important about school and what isn't. How's that for a sales pitch! But a recent David Brooks piece brought it to mind, and blogs are an inescapably self-indulgent enterprise anyway. So here it goes. Read on at your peril.

My general philosophy is that you should never confuse "getting good grades" with being a good student. Good students are people who like to learn things and become interesting people as a result. These students should be contrasted with people who don't try, don't care, and just get by.

Good students should also be contrasted with neurotic types whose life will be a failure if they don't achieve X, whether X provides an interesting or rewarding experience for them or not. These people may know a lot, and have a great resume, but they aren't interesting. In fact, they're quite difficult for interesting people to talk to. Law students know this type well: by the end of school, they'll be able to make mention of any doctrine, case, or article you can think of, but you'd never want to sit down and have a nice dinner with them. Subjects of conversation could never be too attenuated from grade-related endeavors. Their intellectual curiousity only extends as far as their assignments.

The lesson is that grades aren't ends, and you shouldn't think of them as valid means to an end either. They're just an externality of learning stuff. Thus, if you are interested in the subjects you take, hopefully you get the side-benefit of good grades, and the opportunities that come with them. But never forget that grades are not the point - the point is that you learned things and became a more interesting person. And if the grades don't come as expected, well, don't dwell on it too much. You must avoid at all costs making choices based upon your marks - avoiding that Corporations class because its low curve places your clerkship resume at risk is a sorry approach to your education. You've got to see the forest through the trees. Opportunities will come to good students, though they might not be the "right" opportunities for the status-symbol-oriented. Plus, people with good character will like and respect you. Their friendship, combined with your interests, will make for a far better life than your grade-obsessed peers'.

That's my speech. A little annoying, I know. And not a little hypocritical, since I don't always live up to its tenets myself. But I still think the general principles are sound.

Given this rant, I enjoyed David Brooks' op-ed in the New York Times yesterday. Here's a snippet:

"Many of you high school seniors are in a panic at this time of year, coping with your college acceptance or rejection letters. Since the admissions process has gone totally insane, it's worth reminding yourself that this is not a particularly important moment in your life.

. . .

You learned to study subjects that are intrinsically boring to you; slowly, you may have stopped thinking about which subjects are boring and which exciting. You just knew that each class was a hoop you must jump through on your way to a first-class university. You learned to thrive in adult-supervised settings.

If you have done all these things and you are still an interesting person, congratulations, because the system has been trying to whittle you down into a bland, complaisant achievement machine.

But in adulthood, you'll find that a talent for regurgitating what superiors want to hear will take you only halfway up the ladder, and then you'll stop there. The people who succeed most spectacularly, on the other hand, often had low grades. They are not prudential. They venture out and thrive where there is no supervision, where there are no preset requirements."

Amen.

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