“Grade” Expectations? or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Grades

If the title hadn’t already tipped you off, this will be a post with a metric ton of literary and cultural reference, but I promise it will make sense by the end.  First, Great Expectations is a novel by Charles Dickens about a boy named Pip.  Pip is of the lowest social class in Victorian England, apprenticed as a blacksmith in the beginning of the book, but gradually awakened to a larger horizon as the story progresses. One might say that Pip is the quintessential American ideal–despite the fact that he is in no way an American–in that each time he experiences something more desirable that what he already has, his immediate desire is to obtain that improvement.  Having once recognized his moral shortcomings, he longs to be good and endeavors not to repeat the mistakes of his past.  When he first sees Satis House, he longs to be a wealthy gentleman and attempts to become educated in the ways of the socially superior.  Pip’s yearning for self-improvement through education is deeply connected to his social ambition and longing to marry Estella, the eligible bachelorette of Satis house.  Pip correctly deduces that a full education is a fundamental requirement for calling oneself a gentleman and so as long as he remains an ignorant country boy, he has no hope of social advancement–or being wondrously well wed. Already as a child, Pip recognizes the advantages of learning to read at Mr. Wopsle’s aunt’s school, and later, as a young man, he avails himself of further lessons from Matthew Pocket.  Great expectations abound for Pip because he believes in the possibility of advancement through education and deliberate self-improvement.

I feel a certain kinship with Pip.  If you’ve read the first two posts on this site you’ll know why, but for those who haven’t waded through the backlogs, the last three and a half years of my life have been nothing less than the rewriting of myself as a person who is successful in school and capable of achieving his goals–in contrast to my earlier pesona.  The central mechanism of this self-improvement was my rebirth as a pointy-headed academic.

The unfortunate reality of college life–and school in general–is that there is an unfortunate distinction between being successful in school–in regard to learning what was presented–and being successful in school–in regard to earning good grades.  It is entirely possible to learn the material and–through one circumstance or another–still earn an unsatisfactory grade and it is equally possible to earn excellent–even perfect grades–and have failed to actually engaged–in any meaningful way–the material one was taught.  As has already been mentioned far too often in these posts, most of the incoming class of MAPH students this Fall were–at least–successful in regard to earning good or even perfect grades from great schools far and wide.  I think arguments could equally be made that the majority I have come to call friends also learned the material they were presented well and with a superior degree of engagement.  However, if their experience is anything like mine, many of this year’s MAPH students will quickly learn Pip’s lesson.

By the end of Great Expectations, Pip has reflected that it is entirely possible to have acquired the education of the landed-gentry, the social sophistication of the upper class, and even the air of moral superiority often affected by those in power, but still remain–at heart–an ignorant lout.  In the same way, Pip reflects that the convict Magwitch from the first act, despite his lowly position still retains an inner core of decency and even wisdom proven by his decision to shield the young Pip from punishment.  I would argue that, in a parallel move, Core course grades for many of us probably highlight this distinction of education as grades and education as learning.  I’ve learned how to read and write better as a result of my struggles with Core and I’ve written some great work because of it, but you’d never know that to look at the B+ on my grade card.

Second, Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a film by Stanley Kubrick.  In the film a commander of a U.S. Air Force Base, General Jack D. Ripper,  diverts his B-52 bombers from airborne alert to an attack on the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. This threatens to set off a secret doomsday device which endangers all life on the surface of earth.  The somewhat implausible “doomsday device” is probably the film’s stand-in for the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)–that the large stockpiles of nuclear weapons amassed by both sides during the cold war in the name of deterrence would insure the destruction of all humanity in the event that World War III ever got off the ground.  However, deterrence only works if the threats that are supposed to cause fear are communicated to the adversary. This point is made in the film by Russian scientist Dr. Strangelove when he says: “Yes, but the whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?”

I was warned in one of my non-Core courses by a very long-term professor at University of Chicago that UChicago prides itself on grading far more rigorously as an Ivy-plus than the Ives themselves do.  In fact, a comparable student at Princeton and UChicago might find as much as an entire letter grade difference–on average–between their respective GPAs.  Now, for the record, that actually sounds much worse than it actually is.  Folk wisdom at the U of C argues that nineteen out of twenty Princeton grads have between a 3.75 and a 4.0.  Or as one professor puts it “the most distinguished work that a Harvard grad is likely to do in school is getting accepted.”  With this in mind, for UChicago students to score a letter grade lower on average just means that they earned a cumulative B+ (ish) instead of an ungodly A+ (ish).

With this in mind my fellow MAPHers can take cold comfort in the fact that they–like Pip–have learned that the marks of a quality transcript–a 4.0 from great school–might not always demonstrate that a student has earned a distinguished education and that a distinguished education might not always be faithfully demonstrated by a quality transcript–so measured.  One imagines that UChicago takes a perverse pleasure in sending out class after class of world class graduates with second rate grades and assumes that other graduate programs will simply understand that U of C’s students are held to a higher standard–with the lower GPAs to prove it.

However, to what extent is this “doomsday grading scale” a University of Chicago secret?  From the perspective of Hyde Park, all other institutions and future employers are–of course–aware of the epicenter of education that U of C is, but is it really the case that everyone else knows of Chicago’s elevated expectations?  To think like Strangelove, has University of Chicago failed to communicate the worthiness of its grads by failing to communicate the utter brutality of its grades?

I have already communicated my frustrated with the Core’s evaluative structure in my rant, so I won’t repeat myself here, but I will point out that–somehow–the same writing quality that only won me a B+ in Core earned me a pair of As in my two grad level philosophy courses.  But I’ve also learned that I don’t care as much as I formerly had about maintaining that magical 4.0.  I am proud of the work that I’ve done in all of my classes and I would place it against work done by any other first year grad student in any other top-tier school.  Perhaps, this is the real lesson of U of C: that grades really don’t mean much and one’s focus ought to be placed back on what those grades are supposed to represent–actually learning and actually production.  So like Pip, MAPHers have likely learned to lean on some distinctions–of which they have always been aware–to a far greater extent than they’d ever hoped to.  However, for all of our sakes, I hope that U of C has publicized its doomsday secret as widely as it believes it has.


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