The Lie of Good Grades (Essay)

By June 5, 2024 No Comments

The lie that good grades have significance beyond academics destroys the true value of education.

The subject of this essay is extensive and won’t be captured all at once. Nor can it account for every exception, exemption, or experience. Rather, the aim is to discuss the general acceptance of graded schooling over wholesome education and examine some of the pervasive lies barnacled upon it.

We want life to be good, for others and ourselves. We want life to be good for our children, and the children after them. But who are we—we who cannot see the future—to promise, or even imply, such an outcome based on grades in school?

A child entering the world expecting good grades to secure a good ride through life has not only been lied to but failed, mainly by the institution consuming twelve formative years, which trains children into a system with no bearing on the majority of life. The lie that being a good student and getting good grades has any true worth outside the schooling system, compounded with the damage caused by not inculcating the inherent value of the pursuit of knowledge, has deep impacts on the children we’re raising and the future they’ll create.

As an infant becomes a toddler then child, a teenager then adult, good and bad are frequently employed to guide behavior, speech, and attitude, as per the mores of society and values of the parents. The terms increase in nuance alongside a maturing child’s capacity to understand abstracts and gradations. When a child attends school, however, the function of good and bad morphs into something Kafkaesque. No longer are the pair merely applied to language and action, to moral and behavioral right and wrong, but a whole new range appears between approved and unapproved. Throughout formal education, the child is expected to excel in an artificial system extending the parameters of good and bad to false measures of smart, talented, normal, average, etc.

A child who participates and plays along in this school-terrarium is “good”, and “bad” if he does not. A child who achieves according to terrarium metrics is “smart”, and “unintelligent” if he does not. A student who parrots information and coherently provides practiced answers receives a “good” grade. A student who can explain information orally or pictorially but struggles with the written word receives a “bad” grade. A student with a knack for “non-required” subjects is not lauded as “smart” or considered “on track for success”. Such titles are reserved for students who get “good” grades.

For some reason, young boys, and girls, aren’t “good” students if they can’t sit for hours and hours and hours of instruction, even though their restless energy is usually an indication of health and speaks nothing to their actual intelligence. If they harm no one and can spend hours playing with a ball or building Lego or reading or baking or, or, or then condemnation of supposedly “bad” behavior isn’t just wrong but dishonest. The problem isn’t the human (not) in the seat, but the one confining him to it.

These standards are a perverse feature of a factory shuffling students up an assembly line until they are declared graduated. Instead of educating students, forming character, and training in practical skillsets, each stage, from kindergarten through graduate school, is primarily designed to prepare for the next level of schooling. Moreover, the division of students according to age at certain stages is nonsensical and certainly has no mirror equivalent in the world outside of school. Those who graduate at the top of their classes and continue to institutes of “higher learning” are often surprised to find themselves among many other best-in-class. Although the balance between individuality and you’re-not-the-only-one is a lifetime lesson, it would be less pressing without this artificial measure of intellect.

The standard school system is structured around dishonest measurements and an egregious disservice to the children it’s meant to serve. The combination of these factors creates the lie that it’s important to be a “good” student and get “good” grades. The glaring question is, “Why?” Are grades now considered for marriage, parenting, rentals, or starting a business? Are grades relevant to leading a good life, to being a good person?

Purposeful structure is truly good and necessary, as seen by the rapid onset of boredom just days into summer vacation. Structures are integral to making the most of daily living, be it personal schedules, home life, rules of society, work projects, and more. Children do need to learn how to listen respectfully when others speak and how to properly digest that information. However, this unnaturally still school-structure more often yokes passion, energy, and creativity, stifling rather than harnessing admirable traits toward productive endeavors. Anyone who’s been in a classroom can attest to the Pavlovian response of the bell signaling the escaping rush of students from the confinements of the classroom.

There are schools and teachers endeavoring to work outside factory settings, so these words are not focused on the individual but the collective thought and perception wherein society steeps. Although many educators will speak to incorporating different methods of learning into lesson plans, there’s still a need to redefine school honors to incorporate different types of intellects and practical skill achievement.

Students should be taught to develop a work ethic, to apply themselves, show up, and achieve in whichever endeavor they find themselves. Love of learning should be encouraged, overall accomplishment celebrated, and there may need to be some marker for all that. If two students achieve the same grade, but one worked hard for it, who really came out ahead? Can any honest man say these ideals are what the students are getting out of the system? Do these traits not also allow students to focus on something more important than grades?

Education is supposed to prepare for life, with or without “higher institutes”, as proven by the multitudes who don’t even use their degrees. Never mind the many who’ve managed just fine, arguably better, without one. Seven and eight figure earners, not to mention the less tracked consistent six and comfortable five. What many of them have in common is work ethic and innovation not taught at school, and that aside from the previously discussed uncertain nature of success. Besides, as has been advised, you can marry more in a minute than others make in a lifetime. Therefore, assurance that good grades are a pathway to a good or fulfilling job is not either accurate, though it might provide networking opportunities reserved for those who keep to the system.

Humans can make no promises in this world beyond commitment to effort, and the indication that grades are a signal of long-term success or goodness or fulfillment undermines the more important need to learn how to build strong relationships, navigate interactions outside the home and family, explore the world we inhabit, open the mind to debate and knowledge, and other areas given secondary status in school.

In perpetuating the lie that schooling is primarily about receiving a good grade and being a good student, some of the most fundamental values of education have been trampled. The joy in the pursuit of knowledge has been lost, mastery of manual craft shunted, celebration of artistry and beauty filtered. Eloquence, like other accoutrements of the past, has been spayed and neutered. Awe and wonder, and the discoveries they foster, have been replaced with mimicry and a quest for accolades that guarantee no one’s future and spare none from the trenches of life.

Too many students graduate high school without a persistent thirst to learn more about the world around them. How many are even taught to identity the trees in their neighborhood, the birds overhead? Smart phones given to teens (for some reason) contain the entirety of human knowledge but how many access it? How many triumphantly leave school just to attend another school and perpetuate their time in the schooling incubator, (if they don’t soon dropout)?

The point of teaching is not to school but educate, not to learn what to think but how. Schools shouldn’t be safe spaces for feelings but centers of debate, of disagreement and pushback, of the ever-applicable lesson of how to develop an idea and defend it in clear and coherent terms. This includes knowing where to find information and how to assess it critically. Vaguely acknowledging bias in media isn’t enough without instruction in how to identify the differences in coverage then seek the truth buried in between. It’s not only about reading studies, but also checking for who’s behind them and why (hey, sugar).

By turning knowledge into “subjects” and measuring it by grades, the richness of the material is diluted, the world is narrowed instead of opened. Abridged information crammed into textbooks comprise the entirety of lesson plans instead of being only one of many resources. Students oft have little interest in exploring the very things that comprise, or would open, their worlds, simply because they were labeled “subjects” in school.

Why take home ec and woodshop out of schools, when not only are there students who will excel and build real careers with such skills, but also everyone could use some know-how in kitchen basics and home repair? In almost every state, teenagers can get a driver’s license, but many don’t know what an engine looks like, let alone how it operates. Or the basics of changing oil and replacing tires. Mechanics is a practical skill wherein plenty of students would thrive if given the chance. What about studying history through the lens of automotive innovation? Or navigation? The Oregon Trail would’ve been significantly different had the wagons been RVs equipped with GPS.

Economics should begin with groups of students starting their own businesses, the rates of success the best education. Plant gardens, care for them, harvest them, sell fresh herbs or vegetables or fruit or turn them into pies and jams. All practical work outside a classroom setting and beyond the metrics usually used for “smart” students and “good” grades. After sales are tallied, and the school gets its cut (for supplies and facility use), let the students decide what to do with the rest. And if you think arguing over what do with money isn’t useful, then you’ve never heard of “budgeting.”

Essays should be presented through the lens of communication, developing and defending an idea. As “brevity is the soul of wit”, it doesn’t matter how many pages it takes. An efficient communicator knows how to say more with less, not pontificate just to fill up space. Professional writers don’t even count in pages but words.

Science is about gathering and exploring collectable data points from the world. It’s about that moment of, “Hey, why does it work that way?” and then digging for an answer. Instead of textbook math, teach as it’ll be needed, tracking income and expenses, measuring carpets and tiles, doubling recipes, estimating provisions for an event, and so on. Two trains leaving opposite stations is important knowledge for a transit employee, but not someone trying to get somewhere on time.

History isn’t just about stories or lessons of the past, but knowing where we’re from so we know where to? It’s understanding who we are and the responsibility to carry on what was built for us. It’s a way to relay experience, successes and mistakes, so we don’t waste time ignorantly, or maliciously, attempting what’s already been proven. It’s the greatest intergenerational, live-result experiment of societal, human, national, and international interaction.

A case may be made that testing is useful for assessing progress, memorization, and finding solutions under pressure, but employers aren’t yet giving out multiple choice tests in employee assessments. Standardized testing helps little more, as it grades according to the accumulation of textbook information, not accumulated life skills.

What testing, and the rest of schooling, is missing isn’t data, but context and applicability. There should be more cross-subject learning so students can appreciate the interconnectivity of information, so they can spot the Rube Goldberg machine in motion. Historians must understand the interconnected progress of scientific discovery, scientists must articulate findings in legible papers, blue collar workers must know the basics of governance, athletes must have a grasp of finance. American history and literature and invention should be simultaneous studies, even with the same teacher.

The separation of knowledge into “subjects” taught by different teachers is similar to the new “expert” class created with the glut of college attendance and degrees. A so-called expert might know everything about a foot but entirely miss how it’s affected by the condition of the hip. This fabricated system denies there’s a scope and unity to knowledge, shifts and patterns impacting each other across disciplines.

If there’s time for electives, then slots should be filled with practical skills and hobbies, areas of interest to teach students how to fill their time away from school and eventually work. For unknown reasons, students are bombarded with homework, even though nothing of the like will be required of them in the business world on a regular basis. Ergo, former students eventually find themselves in possession of blocks of time they don’t know how to meaningfully fill away from a phone or TV. School is a chance to test different pursuits without grades getting in the way. Why must children wait until college and beyond to find out what else is out there? Where’s the cry to diversify skills and interests?

The ones with real smarts will avoid the assembly line to higher education taken by too many “good” students and start gaining work experience as teenagers. Why must a high schooler stay in school full time instead of having the option to apprentice or join a study-vocational training hybrid. Would this not especially benefit lower income communities where extra income is needed? It might take longer to graduate, but the benefit may well outweigh concerns. Experience provides more growth and opportunity than grades by far.

A student once questioned how a teacher knew the subject she was teaching if it hadn’t been taught when she was in school. The answer should have been obvious enough to preempt the question. Once out of school, away from teachers and curricula, if you want to know something, then you have to learn it yourself. One of the greatest features of this century is the plethora of resources readily available to anyone who wants to know. A successful education imbues students with an intense desire to know more, plus the excitement and motivation to learn it. It’s not enough to rely upon the mind-muscles developed in school, but to consistently engage and expand them if you’re to be a better, deeper, more interesting person.

How do “good” grades ensure any of this? A letter on a report card doesn’t speak to a student’s ability to spot and decipher the interconnectivity of knowledge. Nor does it attest to his capacity and drive to always learn. Least of all, it’s no measure of character, which matters more than any mastery of “subject.” In the words of my grandfather, “Book knowledge is one thing. You could have a lot of book knowledge, and you could be a real moron.”

Most important, being a good student, getting good grades doesn’t guarantee a good life. No one person or action can secure something so vastly beyond human control. This is the very thing religion has grappled with for generations, the well-meaning but misguided expectation that being good immediately ensures good outcomes, that paying into the system and playing by the rules assures an easier road to travel in this world. Anyone who’s lived can attest this isn’t true. Students should be aware of such realities.

Can being “good” guarantee anything? Most likely not in regard to that which can be graded or measured. However, there’s a bet to be made that a good person will contribute toward the good of others. Is that not more valuable than any letter or degree?

We would readily know this too if we hadn’t been so adamant about removing every last vestige of religion from public schools. No education is complete if entirely divorced from ethics, morality, and philosophy. And yes, the intent is Divine morality, though that’s the subject for another essay. There’s no denying that the greatest bloodshed of the twentieth century was instigated by godless movements and ideologies propagated by elites, intellectuals, and smarts divorced of morality. Let’s not feign ignorance on the ability of intellectuals to rationalize mass starvation and slaughter, nor the decision to overlook grotesque crimes in favor of scientific advancement we probably would’ve achieved eventually. Students must know there is a price to the discovery of knowledge, that at times the benefit for humanity is not worth the cost to humans.

To acknowledge, there is separation of church and state to protect religion from the state, and parental distrust or unwillingness to have government teach ethics and morality. All this introduces a new point. Government schooling is relegated to teaching “subjects”, whereas patriarchal and private schools can interweave truly vital morals and values. The obvious solution is to get government out of education wherever possible, not least because it doesn’t have a track record worth defending. In a choice between two qualified doctors, would you rather the one with the degree from the prestigious university or the one who understands the limited role of medicine and knows he isn’t G-d?

Multiple parties are at fault for perpetuating the lie of the current schooling system. Solutions may take time, but they are present and discoverable for those willing to seek and open to change. Students should be graduating the school system not with confidence in their report cards, but with confidence in the skills at their fingertips and the ethical foundation at their cores, solid assurances toward their ability to weather whatever may come. No one can prepare for everything. No one can possibly know what each student’s future holds. But we can realign expectations.

Being good at school doesn’t make a student good at life, and if we’re sending generations of children into the system, they should know the truth of it. They should understand why they’re really there and what they’re to get from it. They should know there’s value in learning and a thrill to the pursuit of knowledge. Subjects are for classification and textbooks; knowledge is for the engaged mind.

Instead of good grades and whatever that may mean for the future, education should focus on teaching how to be a good student, not as per current artificial academic standards, but that a good student is an ever-student. Someone who observes the world and pays attention to the changing seasons. Someone who listens and learns from others, not because they have letters after their names, but because experience grants wisdom worth hearing and insights worth gleaning. Someone who knows their future can’t be entirely pre-paved, but whatever it holds, they’ve been prepared as best as possible. Everything else, they must be taught, will come down to what they make of it.