Professor Calls For Throwing Off The Yoke Of Grades As A Tool Of Capitalism

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.

He writes:

“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.

62 thoughts on “Professor Calls For Throwing Off The Yoke Of Grades As A Tool Of Capitalism”

  1. Estovir – when I was teaching I would daily get out my “Red Pen of Death” to grade papers.

    1. Paul, kids today in college and graduate school dont use textbooks nor paper/pen. They skip classes gleefully, arguing they learn better at home with online classes. Wikipedia is the leading source for researching topics even in graduate school. Ebooks, educational apps, pirated torrent PDFs and GDrive / Cloud sites are the new go-to educational resources

      I still prefer to handwrite my notes on blank-sheets of paper, have several rulers I use to make charts, underline and read old-fashioned text or paper back books

      We is Dinosaurs

      NB: if my Estovir handle is lacking its traditional avatar, the David Brock paid trolls are using my Estovir handle…..weak!

  2. Grades for those preparing to be a professional…doctor, engineer, lawyer.

    1. Grades for those preparing to be a professional…

      The shift away from grades to pass/fail in medical education was condemned in the strongest terms in the 1970s. It even had an indignant, harsh, moral imperative behind their denunciation:

      em>Selection of Medical Students for Graduate Training: Pass/Fail versus Grades

      No resident from a pass/fail institution ranked above the 87th percentile, and this group accounted for 82 per cent of those ranking below the 15th percentile…..It is suggested that the pass/fail controversy is symbolic of the erosion of standards that inevitably occurs when the university becomes involved in transient sociopolitical turmoil (N Engl J Med 299:25–27, 1978)
      DOI: 10.1056/NEJM197807062990106

      Today medical schools have largely transitioned to pass / fail for both pre-clinical years (didactic courses, first two years) and clinical years (medical rotations, last two years). The more alarming trend in medical schools is not the loss of grades but rather the loss of Emotional IQ in physician trainees.

      When medical students today are face to face with patients, they have no interpersonal skills to do a History and Physical, the singular most important skill a physician has to diagnose a malady. They rely on diagnostic tests and algorithms. It is concerning. They have their faces in their electronic devices, look down at the floor and cant hold a conversation of a generic, boring nature much less an intimate one with patients. And yet these kids are not dumb. The median score in medical board exams has been trending upwards for the past several decades. Medical students today tackle and memorize far more basic medical sciences content than what we did in the 1990s. Half of what physicians learned in medical school prior to 1980 is flat out wrong.The information medical students have to learn today is ten-fold of what physicians in training had to digest in the 1990s. So grading in med ed isn’t the problem. These. kids. are. bright!

      Their Emotional intelligence and Interpersonal Skills are a problem.

  3. I’ll share an alternative to grading that’s called teaching to mastery, or “group master then advance”. We used this by necessity in a high school class on Algorithmic Geometry with Java Programming. Since each day’s challenges depended on using the algorithms previously completed, and they had to all be working correctly and ready for reuse in any new problem context, it simply was not workable to have anything lower than mastery from every student (we also ruled out dropping out).

    How did we deal with the natural range of learning rates? We came prepared each day with stretch problems to give the early finishers to keep their interest level up. Students worked in pairs on the sketching (inventive) phase of problem-solving, and then every student wrote their own code. When a student was absent, we encouraged tracking the lesson online, and then borrowing code from a classmate.
    “Group mastery then advance” means that every student gets time to complete the lab, before we move on to the next topic.

    We got through all the material and projects in the 145 hours available, and the only homework was some formative (informal) problem questions answered online, again not graded but evaluated for mastery.

    The Final Exam was a bit tougher psychologically for the students who couldn’t work solo to solve a novel problem. However, 75% of the students demonstrated mastery on a novel test problem requiring inventive thinking on paper with sketching, then coding the design into Java, and running it to obtain numbers and graphics.

    In a “teaching for mastery” course design, it helps that the students are pre-selected for adequate preparation. The students said they enjoyed the psychological safety of knowing nobody would be left behind.

    If I showed you the problem we gave for the Final Exam…OK, here it is: You’re given a straight line L in 3D (specified by two points on it), and given a point p off the line somewhere. Solve for the location of the point pL, the point on line L closest to point p. We made up arbitrary numerical values for the [ x y z ] coordinates of the 3 given points.

    75% of our Grade 11 or 12 Math students solved this problem in under 1.5 hours time.
    So, teaching for mastery, especially in math, has benefits that go beyond the grading system.

    1. pbinca – while your method would work for some topics, it is both impractical and unjust to hold back an entire class in every subject until each and every student passes. Working to mastery would be best applied to individual learners, such as those getting caught up to take their GED test, or as you stated, be able to move on to the next topic in coding. Also, if you don’t grade, what do you do for students who don’t pass the final exam? A failing grade is a grade.

      In addition, once those students graduate, there would be no way to differentiate the top performers from all the rest. Those who studied hardest would have no comparative advantage in hiring. If you had a particular position that required only the best and brightest, you would have no way to determine that to narrow down applicants.

  4. Mr. Wolff has quite the list of credentials for someone that doesn’t believe in meritocracy. Is he teaching pro bono? Has he ever been tenured?

  5. “‘Capitalism’ was a word and a phenomenon neither used by, nor known to, Adam Smith. Capitalism was a wholly late 19th-century experience. The Oxford English Dictionary (Vol II, p 863) locates its first usage in English in 1854 by William Makepeace Thackeray in his novel, The Newcomes.”

    – Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy

    Capitalism did not exist in 1776 or in the cogitation of the American Founders; freedom did. America engages in free enterprise, distinctly not capitalism, which Marx coined as a pejorative with a connotation of evil. Communists disingenuously engage in capitalism to generate profits and money as is clearly the case with China. The term “capitalism” is employed as a standardization to facilitate globalization or hybrid global communism. America engages in free enterprise involving money and financial assets. Capitalism is free enterprise involving money and financial assets. Endeavor in products, services and investments is free enterprise. The underlying American concept is freedom.

    Congress is comprehensively and absolutely limited and restricted from interfering in American free enterprise per Article 1, Section 8 and the absolute constitutional right to private property. Congress has no power to tax for any form of individual welfare or to regulate, possess or dispose of any private property with the sole exception of Eminent Domain. Congress has the power to tax merely for “…general Welfare…” and to regulate merely trade, exchange or “…commerce among the several States.” Congress has no authority to regulate, possess or dispose of private property including the design, engineering, production or marketing of products.

    While Americans enjoy the freedom of thought, speech, belief, religion, publication, press, socialization, assembly, and every other conceivable natural and God-given right and freedom per the 9th Amendment, communism and the principles of communism – central planning, control of the means of production (i.e. regulation), redistribution of wealth and social engineering – are antithetical and unconstitutional. Communism is the direct and mortal enemy of America. Presentations of any and all aspects of communism must be addressed and prosecuted as acts of subversion, insurrection and treason.

    1. You realize that money decisions WITHIN American families are made based on the ideology you want prosecuted as treasonous. The reality is that capitalism depends upon a socialistic family organization to develop young adults prepared for the more difficult economic game for grown-ups, where they and their new families operate as autonomous economic units in the larger economy.

      You notion of what the government cannot do is extreme, to the point where if a mass action of individuals and companies thought it expedient to poison the food and water supply as a side effect of pursuing short-term interests, there is no power inherent in “the People” acting through their government to prevent early species extinction via widespread chem pollution.

      The Constitution gives power to the People to solve problems that cannot be solved through more devolved powers (state, locality, neighborhood, family, individual). The genius of the Federalists was to always prefer a devolved power be exercised if effective.

      1. pbinca:

        “The reality is that capitalism depends upon a socialistic family organization to develop young adults prepared for the more difficult economic game for grown-ups.” You raise an interesting point. I have long felt that socialism would be most functional in a family unit, although it would hit some snags.

        Under socialism, no one owns property, everyone is granted money, clothing, etc, and making a profit is illegal. If a family settled new land, none of the children owned the home. Everyone had to contribute to the family’s survival, and the impetus was caring for loved ones. It would matter deeply if someone refused to work, because they could then observe their relatives starving. When someone brought home game, that meat would be divided without resentment. No one would resent divvying up venison so their mother could eat. Clothes and toys were passed on to the younger children. Parents provided for the needs of the children, who started helping out as soon as they could. The children do not have the right to object to this system and do something different, and they get into trouble when they criticize their parents in a disrespectful manner.

        This paternalistic system does not work, however, outside of a family. When it is employed on a national level, it requires tyranny. Citizens are punished for criticizing the government. The government often assigns tasks, even designating entire regions to a particular industry. There is not enough food. People do not own the fruits of their labors. It is pointless to design a good or service, because you may not profit from it. There is nothing you can do to improve the diet, shelter, or clothing of your children. You are often assigned ugly government housing, and if you owned property before, it is taken from you.

        Even were you to keep socialism small, once it grew outside of a single family unit, it would fail. Let’s say that other families settled nearby, and decided to pool their resources. That would mean that no family owned their homes or farmland, each of which could be taken from them. If one person was a good farmer or hunter, it did not go to feed his own family, but rather the entire community. If that community included people who refused to work, it would breed resentment that no matter how hard you worked, your own children got but a morsel.

        I do agree, however, that the family unit can be described as communal in some ways, although individuals are allowed to own possessions. Once they turn 18, they are free to leave. They may be punished, but not imprisoned, for criticizing their leaders in a family. However, growing up in a family often teaches people how to care for others, share, and work towards a common goal, all good things.

      2. I am talking about America under the dominion of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, 1789. Subsequent amendments were “injurious,” improperly ratified in an insufficient period of time and forcibly imposed under the duress of post-unconstitutional-war military occupation. It is clear that Lincoln not only suspended Habeas Corpus but fundamental law in general making him an illegitimate, unconstitutional dictatorial despot and tyrant. The acts of Lincoln and his similarly illegitimate and corrupt successors are not valid or constitutional, carry no weight or force and must be fully abrogated to resume the proper and legal dominion of the actual Constitution and Bill of Rights.

        Please review my post for facts.

        I demonstrated that the American Founders provided Americans with freedom in conjunction with self-reliance including free enterprise. The term capitalism did not exist and was not part of their cogitation.

        The American Founders provided Americans with maximal freedom while they severely limited and restricted Congress and government through Article 1 and the 5th Amendment.

        That is the law. That is the fundamental law. That is the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

        Article 1, Section 8

        “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

        To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

        To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;…”

        The right to private property:

        “…in exclusion of every other individual…”

        James Madison defined private property as “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”

        5th Amendment

        “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

  6. My first reaction was: Ha, ha, ha! My second was: someone doesn’t want to grade papers!

    1. Justice Holmes – he should just give everyone an A and be done with it, Screw the polemics.

  7. Now that they are overpaid and underprepared they want their work load cut as well.

    1. Naw. If he had been teaching then his students would only have been eligible for the Order of the Cough.

  8. Just another idiot that has do disregard for measuring the level of learning. Did ya see this coming years ago when everyone got a trophy or other award just for finishing, dare I say LAST?

  9. What the hell do they teach at the New School? How to be an outreach coordinater. Women’s studies or how to be a heterosexual white male in a modern society.

  10. If grades accurately reflect merit, then there is no basis to deny the fact. Tautological, but the suspicion that grades do not accurately reflect the merit that they supposedly measure, and the likelihood that they do not accurately reflect it in a sufficient number of cases, especially when grades are so overwhelmingly influential in the augmentation of educational and occupational opportunities, leave grades vulnerable to attack on the kinds of grounds that Professor Wolff has adduced. Meritocracy must actually be meritocratic, or a system based on it cannot be justified. If it is meritocratic, then a system based on it could be justified. Whether benefits and opportunities should be assigned based on the demonstrations made by even accurate grades is a much more complex social and political question (which likely has no satisfactory answer), but it cannot be addressed without first clarifying what grades are actually up to, and that they are sufficiently valid.

    Assuming minimum competence among teachers and professors, grades cannot be completely, or even substantially, arbitrary. We’ve all observed that certain people grasp certain intellectual things that grades are supposed to measure either more quickly or better than others. There is nothing wrong with recognizing this – again, independently of the question of what the results of this grasping should be. I suspect that, if grading in general were more transparent (in subject matter that does not admit of only one right answer, e.g. certain math problems, etc.), and the judgments made by teachers and professors in their getting to the grades they issue clearer (law school is notoriously opaque in this respect), and what exactly is being measured by them better clarified (and subject to sufficient scrutiny about whether that actually can be measured so precisely), then grading would be less problematic and less dogged by so much irresolution about their authority. Transparency would also help ferret out where grades lack authority because they do not reflect merit but, say, the subjectivity of the grader, or the arbitrary interpretive preferences of a test question. The problem is that the discussion of objections to grades never seems, at least in public discourse (maybe it gets there in scholarship), to unearth enough detail about the correspondence between grades and the measurements they supposedly make to be able to tell what grades are really doing.

  11. It’s the New School for Social Research. What Oberlin would be if it were a research institution in a large city. Let the dead bury the dead.

    1. Private institutions should face a menu of disclosure requirements attested to by licensed professionals like accountants, and the corporations and particular officers should be prosecuted by the state attorney-general if they lie.

    2. Private institutions should receive no subventions of any kind. That means no federally guaranteed low interest loans and no hyper-protections in bankruptcy proceedings for the purveyors of student loans. Limit these private institutions to people who can pass through a screen of serious underwriting by banks and finance companies and people who can liquidate family resources to pay the tuition, room, and board, and make sure those people paying have been warned. Most of these schools will go under, and should.

  12. Military pass or fail

    It started with an FBI background check & polygraph. Passed. Spent a year at Ft. Gordon Ga.

    I signed up for the Army Security Agency (ASA) option. The final test came. An instructor & the school commandant stood on either side of me. Maxed it & was awarded Honor Graduate.

      1. dad bod means you have a job where you make bank and can pay a bunch of bills for the kids.

        its also a reflection of a body that suffers from constant stress and overproduces cortisol

        unlike that doosh who sits on a couch and make dumb videos
        and doesnt have kids so nobody cares if he’s lazy or not

        I used to work out every day too before I had a real job and kids. doofus

        1. I used to work out every day too before I had a real job and kids.

          So when you were in the gym “every day” you were single and unemployed. Got it

          IOW: you relish your comorbid conditions as you make excuses why you’re a slug, take a statin, ace inhibitor, calcium channel blocker, metformin, SSRI, and troll these forums

          See you in the gym at 5:45 AM fatso.

          Recalled mayor wins bodybuilding contest
          Carlos Alvarez wins National Physique Competition South Florida

          MIAMI – Former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez raised eyebrows with some of his decisions while in office, now he’s raising them while out of it.

          Alvarez, who was kicked out of the mayor’s office following a recall in 2011, won first place in the Heavyweight class and the Overall in the Masters Over-60 Division at the National Physique Competition South Florida body building tournament in November of last year.

          South Florida’s version of Mr. Olympia, Alvarez, 60, has obviously been working out since leaving office, but no one ever imagined this would be the former Miami-Dade County police director’s next calling.

      2. Estovir,

        I didn’t like the video you posted. Thought it was insulting. Now get off my post!

  13. From the most recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine:

    Perspective: Ghosts of Our Collective Subconscious — What Blackface in a Yearbook Photo Means for Medical Education

    – Dereck W. Paul, Jr., M.S.

    I am part of the first class for which the UCSF School of Medicine has shifted from a grading system of honors/pass/fail in the core clerkship to a pass/fail system. This change came after UCSF openly studied and published grading data that showed persistent disparities affecting student groups that are underrepresented in medicine. *

    The findings were consistent with national data showing that members of underrepresented minority groups score lower in all clerkships and are less likely to be inducted into national honor societies. Now that we had school-specific data in hand, a choice emerged. We could carry on with a system that we knew reliably produced grading disparities and most likely contributed to the downstream disparities among residents and faculty members, or we could choose not to participate in that system.

    Some faculty members resisted the change, worrying that without the traditional system, they would have difficulty evaluating students for residency selection. They were won over by the knowledge that growing awareness of the disparities among students was threatening both wellness and learning, and by the argument that residency programs could not in good conscience use a system for selecting residents that reliably disadvantages certain groups of students.

    August 1, 2019
    N Engl J Med 2019; 381:402-403
    DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1902650


    * Teherani A, Hauer KE, Fernandez A, King TE Jr, Lucey C. How small differences in assessed clinical performance amplify to large differences in grades and awards: a cascade with serious consequences for students underrepresented in medicine. Acad Med 2018;93:1286-1292.

  14. I think we should have jury trials but no verdicts. Let the criminals run free when the hullaballew is over. Same with elections. Do not count votes. Use a lottery to chose the winner. Flip a coin, my name’s Malloy.

    New song out:
    (music to tune of O HI O)
    This summer I near them coming….
    They’re probably on our way…
    In Dayton Trump’s plane has landed…
    He’s probably not gay!

    Gonna get down to it!
    Solders are letting us down.
    How can you run when you know?

    Call on me to serve you…
    I’m good at the throw…
    This summer I’m feeling rotten…
    Nine dead in O HI O.

  15. Confederate General George Armstrong Custer graduated at the bottom of his West Point class.

    1. That explains his poor performance in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

    2. RDKAY:

      “Confederate General George Armstrong Custer graduated at the bottom of his West Point class.”

      Right stat (34th out of 34), right general, wrong army. Also, Custer has one of the worst records for demerits: 726. But damn he could fight.

  16. Professor Richard Wolff of the New School should be given an F.

    No question grades are a lousy method of dealing with mass education but to date I see nothing better. What is not recognized by Wolfe is that the grade only defines a small portion of the individual and in our free market system the individual can demonstrate his skills in many other ways.

  17. Heck yeah!
    What difference does it make if your cardiologist, the engineer who designed and oversaw the construction of the 25 story building you live in or the pilot flying you to the other side of the world made A’s and graduated at the top of his class or made D minuses and was affirmative action/participation trophied to graduation while in a drunken haze?

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