The Grail Code 
Am I being fair?

I’m back from homecoming at St. John’s, where I found everything pretty much the way I left it, except that some of the borderline-slum houses I remember from my days in Annapolis are worth a million dollars now, and two new dormitories are tucked away in the back campus where they don’t interfere with the sight lines down to College Creek.

And so I’m brimming with things to say about the Great Books, whatever they are, but first a small distraction. A kind reader has asked me whether I’m really being fair about the “aim” of American education, which I said was not to teach but to create a kind of caste system. Surely, he says, the real aim is to find which students need help, so that they can get the help they need. Granted, that doesn’t happen as efficiently as we’d like, but “it doesn’t seem right to me to interpret a deficiency in practice as an ‘aim.’”

So am I being fair?

Well, of course not. When have I ever tried to be fair? I think “provocative” is what I’m going for.

But the question is a good one. And I think we need to judge the real “aim” of American education, not by what we think we’re trying to do, but by the results we’re willing to accept.

First of all, I should make a distinction between standardized tests and grades. There is some motivation for schools to raise their average scores on standardized tests. The school administration’s performance is often judged on those scores. Grades are different, though, and grades are more what I was talking about.

If the purpose of grading students’ performance was to find the ones who needed help and help them, then the result should obviously be a gradual improvement in grades. Perhaps half the students might get poor or failing grades in elementary school, but by high school most of the students should be getting an A or B average, because they got the help they needed.

But we would not tolerate that. That’s why I say that the aim, whatever we tell ourselves, is really to sort and rank the students, not to help them learn. If we had a school where almost everyone was getting an A, even if it was because almost everyone was doing excellent work, we’d identify that school as a problem and fix it, and we’d keep fixing it until we saw the proper spread of A through F grades. Thus it seems to me that the ranking is in fact the most important thing in our ordinary American system of education, and everything else must be adjusted or fudged until the ranking comes out right. Whatever is the most important goal is what I call the “aim” of an endeavor, and the aim of education in America is to rank, and only secondarily to teach.

Of course, the aim is much more transparent when the grading is done “on a curve,” so that the average score in the class counts as a C no matter how good or bad that average is.

So after thinking it over, here’s my answer: No, I wasn’t trying to be fair, but I think I actually was fair without trying.

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