Professor Richard Wolff of the New School is calling for the banning of grades as disrespectful to students and advancing a capitalist agenda. Wolff penned an op-ed entitled “Grades Are Capitalism in Action. Let’s Get Them Out of Our Schools.” I confess that I fail to see the oppressive or disrespectful elements of grading, even though it is the worst part of this job. However, Wolff has a broader objective in denouncing “meritocracy” as a concept and grades as merely an outgrowth of that system.
Wolff has long promoted Marxism and returns to that theme in asking, given all of its failures, “[h]ow, then, has capitalism survived? Its persistence can best be explained in terms of ideology . . . One key example is the concept of ‘meritocracy.'” He goes on to explain how he has “suffered the imposition of grades” which take up much of his time.
“While capitalism’s imposed limits help explain the practice of grading, they do not excuse it. It is a very poor substitute for far superior educational practices thereby foregone.
Grading is not only a mechanism designed to save money spent on “education.” Grades also function as a major foundation and support for the meritocracy. The merit ideology functions as a crucial defense mechanism for capitalism given its failures.”
When I started teaching at Tulane Law School, I was told by a senior faculty member “Jonathan, we teach for fun, but we are paid to grade.” Like all professions, performance is measured in the law not only to determine the relative merit of students in school but an indicator for firms in selecting the best candidates to represent clients. I often stress to students that these grades are not the final word on their careers. Indeed, some of the best lawyers in the profession bottomed out their classes. Performance matters in this profession, but until a lawyer has an actual record, grades are a necessary — if traumatic — indicator.
As for capitalism, some of the toughest grading schemes are found in socialist or communist regimes. China has long been notorious for its cruel and unforgiving ranking of students (which largely determine your ability to go to college). Like other aspects of life, we excel or fail according to our skills and talents. When it comes to grades, students can turn around their GPAs and often do after shaky starts in law school.
Thus, I am afraid that I am just another running dog Meritocrat. The key to be sure to get it right in grading but meritocracy has . . . well . . . its merits.