The Grade Economy

by Robert Gressis and Kevin Currie-Knight

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Robert Gressis (California State Northridge) and Kevin Currie-Knight (East Carolina University) have a wide-ranging conversation about the (fraught?) relationship between schooling, learning, and A-F grading. The discussion centers around an essay Currie-Knight wrote called Against the Grade Economy: https://theelectricagora.com/2020/12/… 00:02:36​ Rob and Kevin make small talk 00:07:01​ Kevin describes and laments the grade economy 00:36:07​ What’s the relationship between grades and learning? 00:57:19​ Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education” and how it has traumatized Rob 01:05:58​ Unschooling 01:21:35​ If schools sucks so much, how did Rob and Kevin learn?

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18 comments

  1. This was a very enjoyable conversation.

    On grading, I would add that in mathematics, grading is not necessarily as objective as you might think, especially if you open pandora’s box and award partial credit.

    On intrinsic motivation: I remember a professor in a freshman general education class who went around the room and asked us why we were in college. Everyone except for me said, “to get a job afterwards.” I was the weirdo who said “to learn”! And I learned so much from all the classes. To this day I can indeed tell you specific things I learned from, say, the world history classes or the biology class that I took. Maybe those of us who went into academia are just a weird self-selected subset of the population who now find ourselves educating students who are mostly not interested in the same things we are.

    The fact that we had to earn grades probably helped motivate me to do unpleasant practice problems, but mostly it caused a great amount of anxiety and took away a lot of the joy of learning. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, but it gave me a bit of a complex. I was worried that each semester I might mess up. I even worried when I read that some employers don’t want to hire anyone with a 4.0 GPA (I also graduated at age 18, so maybe some of the anxiety came from being a young student). Even so, going to class each day and learning something new every time was a blast…

    On transferability of math skills: I think what it’s true that most people don’t think about the mathematics they do in the “real world” in the same way that one does in a formal mathematics class. But in my own life I have seen so many times that having a deep knowledge of abstract mathematics _helps_ me understand things that would otherwise be incomprehensible. For instance, in an undergraduate physics course, “tensors” were explained in the colloquial manner of a physicist, but I could make neither heads nor tails of what I was being told. When I finally picked up a good linear algebra book and saw how mathematicians define and think about tensors, everything clicked into place. (That’s probably why I ultimately went into mathematics and not physics.)

    So maybe it’s just a question of personality differences: seeing things portrayed with a certain mixture of intuition and abstract formalism seems to legitimately help me to understand things. Maybe academia will all disappear, but you’ll take all the beautiful mathematics I’ve learned and done along the way from my cold, dead hands :). However, I guess I shouldn’t expect everyone to feel the same way.

    1. I agree with you. In college I felt like I was in a candystore and wanted to sample everything I could get my hands on. I took courses in everything from history to Fourier analysis. To balance my parent’s desire that I get a degree in something marketable with my own desires to study a subject I loved, I did a double major in math and engineering. I’ve now been an engineer for over 10 years but I now find myself being drawn to the social sciences – especially economics. If I retire early I’ll go back to school to get a graduate degree in economics. I need the structure and rigor a university setting provides. I’m too scatterbrained and attack subjects with the precision of a blunderbuss if left to my own devices.

  2. You know a conversation is good when you disagree with virtually all of it and still love it. That’s how I feel about this.

    I am a fan of traditional modes of education. I still lecture and require traditional exams and paper assignments. Unlike both Robert and Kevin, I had a very memorable and inspiring education myself. That doesn’t mean I never had bad teachers or that I was never bored or unmotivated. These are features, not bugs. And the fact that so many see them as the latter has nothing to do with traditional modes of education and everything to do with a radically transformed ethos and sensibility that find such things intolerable. The trouble, of course, is that these cannot be eliminated from *any* endeavor without destroying it, and that is what we are busily setting ourselves about doing. In the 1920’s Robert Heinlein, who walked for miles on a dirt road to get to a school in rural Missouri, studied Latin and Greek. In the 21st century, students can’t even tolerate a single year of French or Spanish.

    A sensible liberalism [and a healthy mind] accepts that one’s freedom operates within a set of constraints. Things one does. Things one must endure. Things one must accept. Things that are given. Things that are what they are.

    A senseless libertarianism, contrastingly, refuses to accept any constraints or givens and insists upon a completely customizable, a la carte approach to life and its activities. In my view, it is a recipe for mediocrity, social disintegration, and a raft load of personality disorders and other forms of social and psychic maladaptation that we are seeing in unprecedented quantities in our young people. Never before have kids needed to sit down, shut up, and do what they are told as much as they need to today.

    1. It really depends on the person and their personality. I’m a lot like Kevin myself in my learning style.

      I went to a fairly prestigious university and even have a master’s degree, but I can’t remember a single professor who inspired me in the least. I got good grades as an undergraduate and graduate student because I understood how the system worked and I played the game. I can recall one very good teacher in high school who inspired me, a history teacher, in an elective course in the tenth grade on modern European history and I still remember many of the things he taught me almost 60 years ago. But otherwise, I generally can’t remember the names of my high school teachers and of many of many college professor and still less what they had to say.

      Since I left the university 50 years ago, I’ve always read a lot and in the last 10 or so years listened to hundreds of lectures in Youtube. Even my mother, who was much more outwardly conventional than I am, dropped out of journalism school because according to her, she had nothing more to learn there, worked as a journalist, as a fairly successful free-lance public relations person and wrote a book in her old age that sold surprisingly well.

    2. “A sensible liberalism [and a healthy mind] accepts that one’s freedom operates within a set of constraints. Things one does. Things one must endure. Things one must accept. Things that are given. Things that are what they are.”

      I very much agree with this.

      “Never before have kids needed to sit down, shut up, and do what they are told as much as they need to today.”

      I’m not a teacher, but my wife is (mathematics) and she’s very demanding. She upholds the old-fashioned values Dan mentions. And you know what? Her students love her for it. Deep in their heart these youngsters know that there are “things one does” when you really want to learn something. They are 17 when they arrive in her classroom, and they are craving for a teacher who let’s them – sometimes quite brutally – experience the collision with something that transcends them.

      If I listen to my wife, I always think the kids are OK. It’s the whole educational system that let’s them down.

    3. There’s a really good discussion of this over at Scott Alexander’s substack, Astral Codex Ten. He reviews Freddie DeBoer’s book here (https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-the-cult-of-smart), and has this to say about school:

      “School is child prison. It’s forcing kids to spend their childhood – a happy time! a time of natural curiosity and exploration and wonder – sitting in un-air-conditioned blocky buildings, cramped into identical desks, listening to someone drone on about the difference between alliteration and assonance, desperate to even be able to fidget but knowing that if they do their teacher will yell at them, and maybe they’ll get a detention that extends their sentence even longer without parole. The anti-psychiatric-abuse community has invented the “Burrito Test” – if a place won’t let you microwave a burrito without asking permission, it’s an institution. Doesn’t matter if the name is “Center For Flourishing” or whatever and the aides are social workers in street clothes instead of nurses in scrubs – if it doesn’t pass the Burrito Test, it’s an institution. There is no way school will let you microwave a burrito without permission. THEY WILL NOT EVEN LET YOU GO TO THE BATHROOM WITHOUT PERMISSION. YOU HAVE TO RAISE YOUR HAND AND ASK YOUR TEACHER FOR SOMETHING CALLED “THE BATHROOM PASS” IN FRONT OF YOUR ENTIRE CLASS, AND IF SHE DOESN’T LIKE YOU, SHE CAN JUST SAY NO.

      “I don’t like actual prisons, the ones for criminals, but I will say this for them – people keep them around because they honestly believe they prevent crime. If someone found proof-positive that prisons didn’t prevent any crimes at all, but still suggested that we should keep sending people there, because it means we’d have “fewer middle-aged people on the streets” and “fewer adults forced to go home to empty apartments and houses”, then MAYBE YOU WOULD START TO UNDERSTAND HOW I FEEL ABOUT SENDING PEOPLE TO SCHOOL FOR THE SAME REASON.

      “I sometimes sit in on child psychiatrists’ case conferences, and I want to scream at them. There’s the kid who locks herself in the bathroom every morning so her parents can’t drag her to child prison, and her parents stand outside the bathroom door to yell at her for hours until she finally gives in and goes, and everyone is trying to medicate her or figure out how to remove the bathroom locks, and THEY ARE SOLVING THE WRONG PROBLEM. There are all the kids who had bedwetting or awful depression or constant panic attacks, and then as soon as the coronavirus caused the child prisons to shut down the kids mysteriously became instantly better. I have heard stories of kids bullied to the point where it would be unfair not to call it torture, and the child prisons respond according to Procedures which look very good on paper and hit all the right We-Are-Taking-This-Seriously buzzwords but somehow never result in the kids not being tortured every day, and if the kids’ parents were to stop bringing them to child prison every day to get tortured anew the cops would haul those parents to jail, and sometimes the only solution is the parents to switch them to the charter schools THAT FREDDIE DEBOER WANTS TO SHUT DOWN.

      “I see people on Twitter and Reddit post their stories from child prison, all of which they treat like it’s perfectly normal. The district that wanted to save money, so it banned teachers from turning the heat above 50 degrees in the depths of winter. The district that decided running was an unsafe activity, and so any child who ran or jumped or played other-than-sedately during recess would get sent to detention – yeah, that’s fine, let’s just make all our children spent the first 18 years of their life somewhere they’re not allowed to run, that’ll be totally normal child development. You might object that they can run at home, but of course teachers assign three hours of homework a day despite ample evidence that homework does not help learning. Preventing children from having any free time, or the ability to do any of the things they want to do seems to just be an end in itself. Every single doctor and psychologist in the world has pointed out that children and teens naturally follow a different sleep pattern than adults, probably closer to 12 PM to 9 AM than the average adult’s 10 – 7. Child prisons usually start around 7 or 8 AM, meaning any child who shows up on time is necessarily sleep-deprived in ways that probably harm their health and development.

      “School forces children to be confined in an uninhabitable environment, restrained from moving, and psychologically tortured in a state of profound sleep deprivation, under pain of imprisoning their parents if they refuse. The only possible justification for this is that it achieves some kind of profound social benefit like eliminating poverty. If it doesn’t, you might as well replace it with something less traumatizing, like child labor. The kid will still have to spend eight hours of their day toiling in a terrible environment, but at least they’ll get some pocket money! At least their boss can’t tell them to keep working off the clock under the guise of “homework”! I have worked as a medical resident, widely considered one of the most horrifying and abusive jobs it is possible to take in a First World country. I can say with absolute confidence that I would gladly do another four years of residency if the only alternative was another four years of high school.

      “If I have children, I hope to be able to homeschool them. But if I can’t homeschool them, I am incredibly grateful that the option exists to send them to a charter school that might not have all of these problems. I’m not as impressed with Montessori schools as some of my friends are, but at least as far as I can tell they let kids wander around free-range, and don’t make them use bathroom passes. DeBoer not only wants to keep the whole prison-cum-meat-grinder alive and running, even after having proven it has no utility, he also wants to shut the only possible escape my future children will ever get unless I’m rich enough to quit work and care for them full time.”

      After saying that, he got a lot of pushback, and wrote a follow-up post that was more nuanced here (https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-cult).

  3. Like Dan, I am out of sympathy with many of the basic assumptions underlying the discussion. (My philosophy of education, were I to elaborate one, would be strongly anti-Rousseauian.)

    Both participants are excellent communicators. I am watching the EA podcast-hosting initiative with great interest.

    1. I agree. That I disagree with it does not change the fact that it is a very high quality conversation.

      Mark, I don’t know if you saw, but Kevin’s podcast, “Learning and Forgetting” has a number of dialogues on education that are of interest.

      1. For an anti-Rousseauian, you sure sponsor a Rousseuian operation, the Electric Agora.

        In the Electric Agora people voluntarily, without receiving a grade or even a word of praise, listen to dialogues of over an hour about often fairly abstruse topics and read short essays (much longer than tweets) which require quite a lot of intellectual concentration.

        We’re all adults, you might counter, but there is no reason why a bright 14 year old can’t participate and contribute. By the time I was 14, I was already reading books for adults (best selling non-fiction, etc.) about politics and society.
        And while I’ve changed a lot since I was 14 in my way of treating and being with others (I’ve become more considerate, more empathetic, I believe), I haven’t changed much at all in my learning style.

        What’s more, your Rousseauian free school experiment is a success, from what I can see. You have more and more bloggers, often quite varied in their outlook (although no one is woke) and lots of new commenters, once again quite varied in their outlook, some even being semi-woke.

        So really, you’re more Rousseuian than you give yourself credit for being.

          1. Independent of the fact that philosophy graduates want jobs teaching philosophy (which is a valid aspiration), is it really worthwhile to teach people with no interest in the subject philosophy?

            Western philosophy starts when Socrates goes in the agora and asks people questions. No is obliged to answer his questions and there are no grades or final exams. He turns a lot of people off, but he also inspires some, for example, Plato, to a lifetime of philosophical speculation.

            When my son was in the university, he used to visit me every Sunday and we’d read philosophy texts together. That was my idea, not his and I would also give him his weekly cash allowance every time he came, which was a genuine incentive of course. This was before the days of internet and so we read books that I took out of the British Council library or that I had in my own personal library, Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Scruton’s Introduction to Modern Philosophy, Plato’s Apology, Descartes’s Discourse, excerpts from Spinoza’s Ethics, Marx’s Manifesto, Mill’s On Liberty and the first book of Nietzsche’s Genealogy.

            It all went in one ear and out the other. Maybe I’m a bad teacher, but today, almost 25 years later, I doubt that he remembers who said, “I think, therefore, I am”. He came for the allowance money and I should have realized that at the time. Actually, I did realize it, but I imagined that something would sink in, but he paid zero attention.

            You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him or her drink. Texts which inspire me meant nothing at all to him.

          2. We were all made to do a bunch of things, and did them. Sometimes it wasn’t great for us, but a lot of times it was. You describe an instance of the former, and I could recite instances of the latter. Such is the nature of real life and the real world. That we are inclined, now, to think this is some kind of problem *is* the problem.

          3. You can make a very good case that people should be made to learn to read and to do simple mathematical operations and to be vaccinated, but it’s hard to make the case the people should be made to read Plato’s Republic, if it’s going to go in one ear and out the other.

          4. I don’t think so. I can’t tell you how many things that I love today were discovered against my will at the time. Most common thing in the world.

          5. We’re different. While I did learn stuff in obligatory courses, they were obligatory courses which already interested me. In a different kind of academic setting, I might even have taken those same obligatory courses of my own free will. In obligatory courses which I took against my will I learned nothing.

          6. Things I never would have liked had I not been made to “do” them and which are among my favorite things today.

            1. Too many foods to count.
            2. Learning French.
            3. Reading fine literature, as opposed to only genre fiction.
            4. Studying philosophy [via a mandatory Gen Ed curriculum]
            5. Being involved in my religious community.
            6. Listening to classical music.

            Etc….

            I certainly do not discount your experience, but I seriously doubt that I am unusual in this sense.

  4. Like a number of posters here, I’m not sure what the alternatives to traditional education could be.

    I had a few experiences of the ‘alternative schooling’ approach when I was growing up. I can’t say either of them went well.

    I was sent to a private bilingual (French-English – I’m Canadian) school from grades 3 to 5. From what I recall, the school put of lot of emphasis on its open-ended pedagogy (this was the 1970s). We called the teachers by their first names, classes were informal and there was a lot of free time from what I recall. I have a lot of memories of playing soccer at a local park, playing chess with another kid during ‘lunch break’ (it must have been a long break), and so on, but aside from French I’m not sure I learned all that much. I found out, when I later transferred to a ‘regular’ school (due to a move to another city) that I was far behind in both English and Math. The other kids in my new class were far ahead of me and it took me a long while to catch up. I had had an inkling of these problems, in the bilingual school, when one day we were told that the provincial education inspectors were showing up. That day they had replaced the posted schedules with fake schedules – in place of our many free periods were classes (probably in English and Math, now that I think of it) that we never actually took. The next day, our free periods reappeared. I had a feeling, even then, that we were being cheated somehow …

    Much later, in my last year of high school, I went to an alternative school in the public system. The place was a weird mixture of intellectual kids like me who didn’t do well in the traditional schools, and kids with other sorts of problems … I remember passing by a classroom one day, where girls were being given advice about how to to go to Buffalo, NY, to arrange for an abortion (this was obviously in pre-Morgentaler clinic days). I don’t think I hung out with that crowd all that much. At any rate, a couple of crises unfolded that year, both due to teachers. In the first, the school principle, who was also the school’s only Chemistry teacher, left suddenly just at the start of the school year, throwing the entire school into disarray. I was forced to complete my chemistry course by a provincial correspondence course, which I loathed. Second, our Computer Science teacher abruptly decided that she wasn’t going to teach, we students would teach each other – so each of us were supposed to plan and prepare a class every week. I remember one kid teaching a class, (while our teacher sat at her desk marking homework assignments from other classes) but I was mortified as I knew nothing about computer science at all and had taken the class because I wanted to learn. I complained about her to the school but nothing was done; unionized teachers were essentially untouchable.

    I don’t remember exactly how that class turned out, but I believe I lost the credit, which caused a lot of problems when I applied to University. I eventually got in to the University and the programme I had wanted, but in retrospect things could have turned out much worse.

    I’ve taught in Asia. Kids there go to school from about 7:30 to around 5, and then often have extra classes or tutoring in the evening, and on Saturdays and Sundays. For, many kids, Sunday morning is their only time off. And Summer ‘vacation’ is spent taking tutoring arranged by their parents. They might get a few weeks off in late August, but that’s it. I think they would find the idea that the North American education system is oppressive to be completely laughable.

    Of course they have issues just as much as we do here – contrary to the stereotype, not every Asian kid is a super-achieving keener, and I certainly don’t mean to defend their system. But the idea that the teacher-student relationship is inherently flawed and must be subverted, which seems to lie behind all of this alternative pedagogy, is ultimately a self-destructive idea.

    1. Re: what the alternative to the current system is, here’s a helpful comment by Peter Shenkin at Scott Alexander’s blog:

      “We have regressed in providing a range of public schools that cater to multiple tastes and aspirations. When I was growing up in NYC in the ’50s & ’60s, more such paths were provided. Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn tech educated the technical elite. (I’m not afraid of that term.) The HS of Music and Art trained talented musicians and artists, at least in the “classical” arts and music; but it’s worth noting that these days, even places like Juilliard have strong jazz programs and more than a whiff of hip-hop and even country music in the air. We had a HS of Printing Trades, a HS of maritime trades (which was located on a ship moored at a pier, and I envied the kids who went there). There was a HS of Performing Arts for aspiring actors and a HS of Fashion Trades. Except for the “elite”schools, these were called “vocational schools.”

      “And in “ordinary” high schools, there were two kinds of degrees: a “general” degree and an “academic degree”, which was intended for the small (compared to now) number of students who expected go on to college. The “general” degree fed a large demand for accountants, clerks, retail employees, firemen, policemen, bus drivers, subway workers, etc. Some of the above jobs are gone, but not all of them. And the office buildings whose corner offices house the 20% (or 10%, anyway) employ large number of plumbers, electrical workers, building engineers, maintenance workers, security guards; and tend to hire outside carpenters and decorators for renovations and outside janitorial agencies for cleanup.

      “In the buildings where I spent most of my career, the folks who provided these services in the buildings where I worked were really good at what they did. Those who did have college degrees probably didn’t need them for their jobs but may have appreciated their ability to have gone. Those who did not probably did not suffer for their lack. I respected them all; or at least, if there were those whom I respected less, it wasn’t because they had less education than I did. And quite a few were very smart, college degrees or not.

      “Cherry-picking students makes sense. Birds of a feather should be allowed to flock together and the flock should be catered to and nurtured. Musicians are going to do better around other musicians, actors around other actors, athletes among other athletes. It is as ridiculous to take a genuinely talented young athlete whose heart is in soccer, hocky, basketball or baseball and make him take algebra (unless he wants to take it), just as it would be ridiculous to send me to a program specializing in any of those sports.

      “Finally, problem kids: [mentally disabled], or disturbed, or blind, or deaf, were taken out of the regular classrooms and put into special programs. Kids who always acted out and kept others from learning were put into the “600” schools (like, say, PS 612). There is a residue of that still left, but for the most part, “mainstreaming” has taken over, that this to me is a terrible idea. To me, this past diversity of educational paths was humane and generous. My elementary school in the Bronx had a little garden plot fenced off from the recess area. It was very pretty. I once asked a teacher what that was for. It turned out to be a place where the [mentally disabled] kids could learn to plant flowers and maybe vegetables and get some joy of satisfaction in their lives instead of bitter tears of failure. At the age of say, 9, when I learned this, I thought it very sweet.

      “Thus, a lot of what DeBoer advocates used to be in place. It’s true that the job market has changed, and it is also true that all of a sudden in 1957 we threw huge amounts of money into scientific and technical programs in order to “beat the Russians.” I actually owe my ability to get through college and grad school with very little debt due my good fortune in being talented (or at least interested) in such things, but somehow it became the thing that now “everybody” should be learning. Not!”

      The interpolations were done by Scott, not me.

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