Education and Grades
DECEMBER 01, 1979 by P. DEAN RUSSELL
Professor Russell hands this essay on education to all students who take his course in Business Communications at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.
The awarding of grades is often the most distasteful task faced by teachers on any level. To some extent, the grading process automatically puts a barrier to learning between student and teacher. This is especially true on the senior high school and college levels. The student may hesitate to say what he thinks because the instructor may mark him down for heretical ideas, i.e., disagreeing with the instructor. This fear is all too often based on the student’s experience.
The student-teacher relationship that most appeals to me is the one developed a millennium or so ago by the Saracens. We know those people as the "bad guys" in the Crusade capers of our European ancestors.
Anyone who wanted to teach in the old Saracen civilization could do so, if he could find someone who wanted him as a teacher and who would pay for his services. Jew and Christian and Moslem, black and white, all participated. Race and religion were not barriers to entry into this serious business of learning, either as a teacher or as a student.
The teacher was not licensed or certified to be a teacher, and he didn’t license or certify anyone as a student. There were no academic requirements for admission into this learning process. The student and teacher just made an arms-length bargain acceptable to both. If the student became dissatisfied with his teacher, he simply found another teacher who pleased him more, in much the same manner that you and I change swimming instructors or piano teachers. When the student had learned as much as he wanted to learn, he left. He, and he alone, made the decision, precisely as a present-day student in a commercial language school decides when he has learned as much as he is willing to pay for.
No formal examinations were given in those ancient centers of learning. No degrees were awarded.
No academic records were kept. Thus the only power possessed by the teacher in the old Saracen tradition of education was the power of logic and persuasion. He didn’t have a "magic marking pencil" loaded with an unlimited number of A’s and F’s as we instructors do today.
The students could hardly riot against the Saracen education establishment. There wasn’t any. And, apparently, those centers of learning (universities) were generally free from supervision and control by government. Nor were there any academic accrediting associations which, of course, cannot precede but must necessarily follow the establishment of a formalized educational system.
The physical plant (the actual buildings) of those places of learning were sometimes provided by the religious authorities, sometimes by government, sometimes by commercial interests on a rental basis, sometimes by the same commercial interests on a "for free" basis dictated by self-interest, sometimes by individuals (teachers and others) who used their homes as classrooms, and sometimes the students and their teacher just met for discussions in some public coffee house. Sometimes the physical plant was a combination of all of these, located around a library that had developed in much the same way as the rest of this center of learning or university.
The supporting services—food, lodging, medicine, social life, and so on—were provided by persons who profited directly from supplying the product or service.
Those universities continued to grow and develop over the centuries into renowned centers of learning with, apparently, almost no academic formality or authoritarian supervision. In some respects (but certainly not in all respects) many of the medieval universities of Europe were patterned upon that old Saracen concept of education.
In today’s world, there is not any academically successful arrangement that’s quite like the ancient Saracen method of teaching and learning. The concept of the "University Without Walls" that showed much promise a few years ago was based somewhat on that philosophy, as was the "Open University" sponsored by the British government. While several educational institutions still endorse that concept in various forms, most of the experiments seem inevitably to revert to traditional assignments and grading procedures. Only the mechanical methods of delivery deviate much from the norm, e.g., teaching by TV or the mails or weekend classes on campus and such. Also, more "nonaccredited" teachers may be used.
The closest development to the old Saracen concept of education today is found in various educational "centers" (for the study of something) which are supported by a combination of industry, foundations, universities themselves, religious organizations, and interested individuals—and sometimes by government, directly and indirectly—but which are not positively controlled by an "establishment" of any sort. In these communities of scholars, it is often difficult to determine who is teacher and who is student, and they sometimes change positions overnight. The feature most closely akin to those old Saracen universities is the fact that no examinations are given, no degrees are awarded, and the only academic records kept are the publications of students and teachers.
Those few communities of scholars, however, are essentially outside of the academic system typified by our degree-granting colleges and universities. I do not know of even one accredited educational institution that does not, in one way or another, grade the students who are candidates for degrees; nor can I visualize any acceptable way of avoiding this arrangement in today’s world. The grade may be merely pass or fail. And it may be based on independent study or classroom work or various other possible arrangements. But always, where academic credit is involved, grades are required. And we teachers with our inevitable magic marking pencils—are inescapably responsible for awarding the grade. We must decide—that is, we cannot possibly avoid deciding—criteria for high grades and low grades. There is simply no way around this arbitrary authority of the teacher (me) over his students (you) in our formalized educational system.
Even so, if you would still like to study with my help, welcome. I assure you that I find students in general most stimulating, that I have a recognizable philosophy of living in our real world, and that I would enjoy sharing with you my extensive experiences (both successful and unsuccessful) in the business world, in the writing and speaking world of communications, and in studying and living abroad and in various sections of the United States. And, of course, I’ll be pleased to react to whatever experiences and ideas you care to share with me, publicly in class or privately in my office.
Naturally, I will do whatever I can to help you learn whatever you desire to learn (or must learn) while you are fulfilling the academic requirements for your degree from this university. I will also do all I can to help you earn the highest possible grades. That’s important too.
Finally, please remember that I’m not so insecure that I need to put people down. So speak up.