A Lofty View of Education
By far my least favourite thing about grading is having to endure the endless grade-grubbing. The wheedling, the pleading, the sense of entitlement; it’s all very distasteful to me. “I’m very surprised by this grade because I always get A’s in all my classes.” “I really can’t get a C on this paper otherwise…” “Show me why you thought this paper should get a 70.”
What I dislike is not that students feel like their work is better than it us, but the fact that they care only about the grade and nothing about the material. If they could get an A without having to engage with any of the ideas and concepts of the course, most of them would be perfectly content. But that is not the point of education! It is to learn, to wrestle with new ideas, to challenge one’s preconceived notions, and especially to fully comprehend one’s own ignorance. The grade is immaterial to that.
Of course, this is a somewhat lofty view of education. To most people, higher education is simply a means to an ends. It’s a four year thing that you have to go through in order to graduate and get the job one would like. It’s more a strategic decision of self-interest rather than a true journey of discovery. And while I understand that motivation, I think it a pity. At least a part of a desire to be educated should be the desire to achieve self-fulfillment through engaging with a rich heritage of ideas (good and bad) that stretch back millenia, even if your desired occupation is accountancy, sales, or something else.
This is not a new idea, of course. The idea of having to complete “general education” requirements in University stems from this idea. This is often called a Humboldtian model of higher education, after the Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, who articulated this idea of encouraging students to engage with a broad set of humanistic principles.
Consider also this quote from the philosopher Michael Oakeshott:
“Each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historical time, lapped round with locality. But school and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances and from the wants he may happen to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed. He finds himself invited to pursue satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for. They are, then, sheltered places where excellences may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble. They are places where a learner is initiated into what there is to be learned.”
Lofty indeed, and increasingly unattainable given how politicized university education is becoming (i.e. it’s harder to ignore the “din of local partialities”). But I believe in the broad outlines of what Oakeshott is saying. The way I see it, universities are more than just vocational training. One of their primary purposes should be to expose students to the best of human thought. Of course, there are limits to this argument. If everyone received the liberal classical education that used to be the norm, it would have deleterious economic consequences. But everyone should at least take a few humanities classes, a few history classes, a few philosophy classes, and take them seriously. And they should care about the material, not the grade. Enough grade grubbing!
 Now, I suspect I am creating a dichotomy that seems mutually exclusive, but need not be. You can study a purely professional subject while still having a deep thirst for knowledge about art, literature, and science. I hope that is the case for most people. My anecdotal evidence with how I hear the purpose of a university education be discussed makes me skeptical though.