Capitalism and grading

If we want our pedagogy to foster critical thinking and intellectual curiosity, then I’m increasingly convinced that traditional grading may be holding us back.

In a recent review of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Winant explains the author’s view of the relationship between education and neoliberal capitalism:

Harris finds the world of childhood increasingly redefined by actuarial caution. Most of all, though, he finds it in the classroom. School, after all, is just a form of unwaged work, masked by the ideology of pedagogy. The surplus that kid-labor creates, rather than going to any immediately present boss, pools up in the students themselves, to be tapped by future bosses. When they do schoolwork, children labor on themselves. “By looking at children as investments, we can see where the product of children’s labor is stored: in the machine-self, in their human capital.” The steady increase in homework, the growing apparatus of testing and school accountability, and the pressure for longer schooldays and schoolyears is just what you would expect once children have been turned into financial assets. Many of the observed social-psychological attributes of the young generation result from undergoing such processing into a human commodity-form. Childhood is a “high-stakes merit-badge contest,” teaching kids to be “servile, anxious, and afraid.

At the end of childhood, some millennials go to college to continue accumulating human capital. Harris is a peerless observer of the harrowing economic costs of “meritocracy,” and his chapter on college abounds in withering apercus. “College admissions offices are the rating agencies for kids,” he writes. “And once the kid-bond is rated, it has four years until it’s expected to produce a return.” Because the pressure to accumulate human capital is so intense, students will bear enormous costs to do it. Far from the coddled children of stereotype, Harris points out, most college students are “regular people—mostly regular workers—who spend part of their work-time on their own human capital like they’ve been told to.” Exhaustion, overwork, and even food insecurity are common.

To what extent does the grade at the end of the semester illustrate students’ actual learning and mastery of material, and to what extent are we merely perpetuating a “rating agency?”

Jean Anyon’s 1980 study examines how modes of pedagogy reproduce social class: “The ‘hidden curriculum’ of schoolwork is tacit preparation for relating to the process of production in a particular way.” The study compared five 5th grade classrooms and found that the working class ones stressed “following the steps of a procedure,” and the middle class school emphasized “getting the right answer.” In contrast, the affluent and elite schools asked children “to express and apply ideas and concepts, … to reason through a problem, [and] to produce intellectual products.” Ayon concludes:

Differing curricular, pedagogical, and pupil evaluation practices emphasize different cognitive and behavioral skills in each social setting and thus contribute to the development in the children of certain potential relationships to physical and symbolic capital, to authority, and to the process of work.

I’ve also recently read a 2017 article by Stuart Tannock: “No grades in higher education now! Revisiting the place of graded assessment in the reimagination of the public university.” He outlines a conflict that we’re all familiar with:

[There are] two opposing models of higher education in society: a privatised vision of a university that serves individual, economic and market-based interests and is paid for privately, by those who benefit directly; and a public vision of a university that is dedicated to serving the universal public good – benefiting those who work and study at universities and those who don’t alike – and is therefore publicly funded and supported.

If we believe that universities should do the latter – serve the public good – he argues that our traditional modes of graded assessment do not necessarily help us realize that vision. He explains that grading is undemocratic for three key reasons:

First, grading undermines the sense of collective solidarity and mutual responsibility between students that democratic education seeks to foster, and promotes instead an embrace of competitive and detached individualism.

Second, grading undermines the principles of dialogical engagement and critical questioning of authority figures vital to democratic practice, by instead promoting relationships of passivity, obedience and submissiveness among students towards their teachers. ‘The correlation between power and subordinacy in the classroom finds its most blatant expression in the grading process’, writes Giroux (1984, 84): ‘Grades are used, in many cases, as soft cops to promote social conformity and to enforce institutional sanctions.’

Third, grading undermines intrinsic motivations among students for becoming independent, critically engaged, self-directed learners – again, the type of learners who are widely held to be essential for preserving healthy democratic societies – instead substituting extrinsic motivations of working and learning to gain reward or recognition from others, or avoid failure or discipline.

Tannock is careful to point out that alternative modes of assessment are not perfect, and have particular risks and pitfalls. Changing how we grade does not automatically solve the problems of the privatization of education. However, if we are invested invested in higher education as a public good that fosters the critical thinking that we need to maintain a democratic society, Tannock argues that rethinking assessment might be a good place to start.

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