Dear Katie – How important are grades? Part 2
This column is Part 2 of a two part series about grades, prompted by a reader question. You can read Part 1 of the series here.
This is a column not so much about how high grades lead to jobs, and whether B or C students can also get jobs (they can, see my last column). This is more a column about how to keep your mind and self in an academic culture that prizes grades above all else. This is a column about the how absurd the university pressure cooker is, and how all students – from low-achievers to gold medal winners – need to step outside of the whirlpool and take stock occasionally. And it’s written by me as a person who struggled with all of this stuff herself, and still gets pulled under the water a lot.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Why do we have grades? We have grades because it is necessary, in the way our society is structured, to have a shorthand way of comparing two people. And historically, people thought rationality and knowledge were all that mattered. We may know more about education and intelligence now, but it doesn’t matter. Institutions and societies like easy things, and take a long time to change, so even though we know better about education, we are stuck with grades for now.
But what do grades mean, really?
My mother speaks exclusively in wise sayings. One of her best is that “we measure what we value and we value what we measure”. That is, in order to assess, analyse, and improve anything, we measure the bits that are important to us (or, in many cases, are easy to measure). But once the measurements are chosen, we value the measurements over the big important thing we were trying to measure. We get caught up in the designator being the thing, when in fact it is not. The thing is the thing.
Big complex nuanced things like, “is this person likely to be a capable lawyer” are hard to assess. Simple things like, “did she get an A in contract law” are easy. Brains like easy, because thinking is hard and we are all so busy. So, over time, in discussing and comparing and prioritising grades, we can all start to mistake the answer to the second question for the answer to the first. It can even go further, to the point where it can feel like the answer to the question “what is your GPA” is the designator for “what is your worth as a person”.
That makes sense, when you know how brains and culture work. But it’s still plain wrong. A grade is still just a designator for a thing. The thing is still just a tiny part of the picture. The assessment of the thing is still imperfect and outside the person’s control, and the meaning of the designator is still unreliable. (When you can fail a paper because you are stupid or because your mother died, the letter on the page, all by itself, doesn’t mean a lot.) That’s a whole lot of wrong things leading up to a cultural “truth” that grades are extremely important and are accurate representations of worth.
So let’s cut it off right here. Your grades are not your worth. Leaving aside the obvious point that human worth is inherent, your grades are not even your intelligence, since intelligence takes many forms.
Here’s what grades are: grades are limited, imperfect data about a small part of a person’s capacity and virtue.
Other relevant data: whether they are kind; whether they have a curious disposition; whether they are suffering; whether they experience prejudice in the system that is assessing them; whether they live with integrity; whether they like dogs; whether their mind is distorting their capacity to see their own worth; whether they have skills that go unrecognised in status quo systems; whether the systems were built by people who were different from them and sought to exclude them; whether they are sensitive; whether they seek to make their world better; whether they hold themselves accountable; whether they face financial scarcity, or scarcity of any kind; whether they are mindful of the work they leave for others; whether they give too many examples in unenumerated lists that could really go on forever.
You get the point.
So my invitation to you, when you catch yourself at the mercy of the rip tide of grades culture, is to ask yourself what you think. Even just occasionally, make sure you know what you think. I mean this broadly, zooming out to see all the ways you work to align your life with your values, or find meaning and goodness in being alive (acknowledging of course that mental illness saps the latter). But I also mean specifically in relation to grades.
The whole thing about grades is that you serve up your work for someone else to judge, in a context where the culture says their assessment is extremely important. It helps, regardless of what grade comes back, to know what you think about the work. Do you think you did a good job? (By the way, the bit of your brain answering this question should not be anxious, depressed, people-pleasing brain. He’s all wired on threats and defaults and distortions and is not much help. Give him a cookie and some Lego to play with while you have this conversation with yourself, full of curiosity and free of any judgement.)
It helps when doing this, again regardless of your actual grades, to acknowledge to yourself (with compassion) any challenges that got in the way of you doing better work, and acknowledge to yourself (with humility) any advantages you have that others may not. This stuff is context for your grades. (For example, if you get As all the time but you also suffer no mental illness, financial challenges, systemic prejudice, or similarly enormous obstacle, you would do well to acknowledge that some of your success in a comparative system, even if you work very hard, comes down to you starting with more M&Ms than others. If you don’t hold yourself accountable to this reality you risk thinking that you really are worth more than other people, and that way darkness lies…).
Because the truth is very plain to see outside of university.
Your worth, your humanity, your personhood, none of it is contingent on grades. Grades are a thing you try to maximise so you can pass through a somewhat arbitrary door on your way to the particular path you have chosen. Grades are important (albeit imperfect) for that purpose. But the idea that they are really important beyond that is a bizarre cultural distortion we swim in. It is important to step onto the banks of the river occasionally – at least once a semester – feed a wandering duck or two, and really grasp on to that fact. Your whole self will thank you for it.
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Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at thenewlawyer.co.nz. Check out her website for more details at: symphonylaw.co.nz. Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.