John Willson

I was driving into our church parking lot the other day, thinking about a nice essay by Douglas Minson on the 79th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. I’m sure glad it happened about seven years before I was born. Anyway, it occurred to me that I had completed an anniversary just a few months ago–I really had never thought about it before: fifty years in the classroom. I started teaching in a small town in western New York in the fall of 1962. For a long time I’ve known that I have a rather different take on teaching than most of my many colleagues, and so for the last three or four years I have been writing down what I call “Notes,” which add up to a book or so. What follows is one of those Notes, appropriate, I think at this time of year when students are having mini-nervous breakdowns over grades and professors are whining about how many papers they must grade.

Gradus ad Parnassum

For a few months in 1970 I rode home from the university with my friend and colleague Jay Cross. Jay taught the department’s courses in Big Business and Reform. He was a crusty old Catholic (only in his mid fifties) with a sharply chiseled face and close-cropped grey hair and a wit that could peel the varnish off the woodwork of his old office. We enjoyed a few minutes of reflection at the end of long days of teaching while we waited for his son to collect us for the ride home. One quiet fall day, shadows and sun showing the dust on the old furniture, a student burst through the door–no knock, slammed a bluebook down on Jay’s desk, and said in a furious but rather quiet and shaky voice, “Dammit, Dr. Cross, I did not deserve this F!”  Without a change of expression, Jay replied, “I know. But it’s the lowest grade we have.”

Although students have often heard me say that one of my favorite historical categories is, “if it isn’t true, it should be,” this actually happened. The poor young man was so confused by Jay’s reply that all he could manage to do was to withdraw from the room, much like a chastened dog backing away from a disciplinary slap with a rolled up newspaper. I still think the scene is hilarious, but it also shows in bold relief the chief cruelty of our profession: assigning our students to paradise, purgatory, or the inferno with the stroke of a pen.

Grades, of course, are not eternal. They only seem to be at any given moment. In fact, grades as we know them are a relatively recent educational innovation. Although Yale president Ezra Stiles tried as early as the 1780s to rank his seniors (Optimi, 2nd Optimi, Inferiones, Pejores) it didn’t take. Mt. Holyoke College was the first institution to adopt a grading system–in 1897, about the time my grandfather graduated from Syracuse. Grandpa had taught arithmetic to prospective teachers in Lincoln, Nebraska before he had been to high school, hired because he knew arithmetic! His cousin Gertrude, who taught for almost four decades in the New York City public schools (ca. 1900-1936) learned to “mark” tests and papers and speeches, as well as sewing projects.

Grades were invented by my grandfather’s generation, a product of an age of democracy and equality, science and technology and measurement; an age of organization and bureaucracy: The Progressive Era.  Grades are no more “natural” to teaching, or to education in general, than is the SAT, which is also a reflection of similar cultural assumptions. One can no more imagine a GPA system at Aristotle’s academy or Thomas Aquinas handing out A’s and B’s at the University of Paris in the 1250s than one can imagine us, who are of a statistical turn of mind, not handing out letters and numbers supposedly indicating quality of work or of mind.

But we have them–in all shapes and kinds.  At various levels of school I was graded E,S,U; A,B,C, etc.; numerically on a 100 point, 4 point, 12 point (what in the world is a 9-?) scale; and once with I-IV Roman numerals. One pied piper colleague could convince his students that they deserved an 86.646% rather than an 87.148% on a written essay examination. I’ve known good teachers who “never” give A’s, and others who believe that all of their “majors” should get A’s and B’s. Global warming is likely to recede from our consciousness before grades do, although it is arguable which is the more dangerous or complex notion.

For about the first ten years I tried to teach I was a very “hard” grader, or at least students thought I was. Generally, three or four students in a class of 35-40 would make A’s, and about the same number would fail. Since I was third in my college class with a GPA of 3.43 (which wouldn’t make the top eighty nowadays in the college I retired from) and second in my high school class of 43 (only two of us in a little rural town of 1600 souls earned averages over 90%, although the class has produced several Ph.D’s, five millionaires who have earned every penny of their wealth, and upstanding citizens all) this didn’t seem to me unusual. Then one day when we were moving from one house to another in the St. Louis metropolitan area I found a bluebook from my undergraduate days. It was an A+ of course–after all I was Phi Beta Kappa–but I read it. About a half hour later my wife found me staring out the window and saying, “What have I been doing to these young people?” By the time I had been in the classroom for forty-five years or so I was an “easy” grader.

Remember, we have had only about a century of grading. It is fashionable now to talk about “grade inflation,” as if it were somehow a violation of hallowed professional standards. Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard has inspired a minor cottage industry of ruffled feathers, and some really funny moments with his concept of “ironic” grading. The problem is, he seems to know the shape and texture of the Great A in the Sky, as have several of my colleagues over the years. Make no mistake: Teachers give more high grades than they used to, at least in the half century that I remember them. To which I say, so what? Easy graders are not what my mentor Russell Kirk called enemies of the permanent things. Russell was himself quite an easy grader, as was Jacques Barzun’s hero William James, and David Smith and Katie Cook of Hobart College and Nelson Blake at Syracuse and scores of others whom I consider to be among the world’s most inspiring and challenging teachers.

Grades are not absolutes. Russell Kirk said the best and most succinct thing I have ever heard about grades that are too high: that “any small sign of moderate talent would be rewarded with the grade of A, a procedure admirably calculated to lead small talents into imagining themselves large ones.” But what if a teacher looks at the world as populated only with C minuses? A young woman came to me in distress; I had known her almost since her birth, a bright and lively person who possessed writing skills far above the norm of freshman students. She had the third consecutive C- paper handed back, and didn’t know what to do to improve. She knew the professor’s reputation as a hard grader, but couldn’t find the clues that might not only help her to improve her writing, but to pry him loose from the hook-and-slash. I told her that she should be grateful for his standards, and his comments; everything he had said about the papers was constructive, and I agreed with every criticism; and if I had graded it, well, it would probably be a low A.

In other words, if two teachers who care deeply about their students and who  agree with what constitutes good writing, at the same college and with the same students, are two full letter grades apart in assigning awards, there is something very wrong with grades as a measure of worth. Patrick Allitt, who is a very good teacher if his book, I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student (2005) is an accurate measure, seems to think that whatever their causes, higher grades are with us to stay, and we might as well just do the best we can.  Jacques Barzun, in his magnificent Teacher in America (1944) seems to think that grading is inevitable, and that it is “absurd to say that marks are unimportant and that real students should ignore them. Cruel nonsense!” They are both right, six decades apart, at least for the next few decades or so, but Barzun strikes an important note when he says that “a marking system should be as far as possible uniform.”

And there’s the rub. In a culture that is uniform enough to grade uniformly, there would be less need to grade. Standards would be well understood. In a culture that despises moral consensus and celebrates “diversity,” standards are always up for grabs, and largely political. In a culture that expects rich variety, quite large differences of rewards, including grades, are expected. It bothers almost nobody that dark complexioned players dominate the National Football League, for example. But in cultures which demand equality (while still giving lip service to diversity), such as our school culture, uniform grading turns out to be “uniformly high.”

Such things will change from time to time, but for now we must live with the fact that the difference between grades of 3.56 and 3.51 (on a scale of 4.0, counting plusses and minuses) is about equal to the difference between 3.56 and 2.56 forty years ago. To such things we can adjust.

To teach, however, to pass along something or show somebody how to do something or give lessons or impart insight or understanding, we indeed should aspire to some agreed upon measure of how the student is doing and how we are doing helping him. As Barzun and many others point out, examinations are not limited to schools. They happen all our lives. They test us against reality, or perhaps they are just hurdles put in our way to amuse somebody else. It matters less whether the mark assigned to the examinations is spaced one way or another (such as ideal distances between golf irons according to loft) than whether both the teacher and the student can tell if what is supposed to be happening in the classroom is in fact happening, and at what pace.

Jay Cross’s cruel but precise comeback to the student he failed is one way to do that. It might be better, however, for teachers to work out a gradus ad Parnassum.

Parnassus is the mountain associated in Greek mythology with Apollo and the muses of poetry, the arts, and learning, and therefore of wisdom. Gradus is Latin for “step,” to or from an object, indicating everything from the quality of an egg to the level of one’s proficiency at a musical instrument. The Jesuit Paul Aler used Gradus ad Parnassum (“step to Parnassus”) as the title of his book on Latin grammar in 1687, and it thereafter became a common designation for books in many subjects in the liberal arts, especially music.

It’s a fetching thought, that a teacher can help students take “steps to wisdom.” In a way it’s an obvious notion. Not all children crawl before they can walk, but most do, just as prospective carpenters must learn how to hammer a nail or saw a board before they can build a house. A charming little novel, Parnassus on Wheels (1917), written by Christopher Morley (for many years the editor of The Saturday Review of Literature), put me in mind of how both universal and American the notion is.

Morley writes about Roger Mifflin, a ruddy little gnome of a man who owns a “Travelling Parnassus,” a pre-combustion engine motor home filled with books and pulled by a horse named (what else?) Pegasus. His card says,

Worthy friends, my wain doth hold
Many a book, both new and old;
Books, the truest friends of man,
Fill this rolling caravan.
Books to satisfy all uses,
Golden lyrics of the Muses,
Books on cookery and farming,
Novels passionate and charming,
Every kind for every need
So that he who buys may read.
What librarian can surpass us?

Roger travels New England, not so much selling books as willing their riches on the ordinary people of farms and towns, convinced–rightly so, by his success–that all of us are capable of attaining wisdom, if we but have the right tools and the right steps. In this case, good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity, crusty New England egalitarianism, and books.  Roger cares nothing about grading the good people to whom he sells the books; but he is sure that they will be filled up with whatever they can digest, and appreciate Parnassus even if they can’t climb it.

Gradus ad Parnassum also makes sense from the point of view of teaching skills that are usually learned outside a classroom. For almost as long as I have tried to teach history and literature I have also taught young men to kick a football. Because they meet me at the college level, and because I have never been a full time member of a football staff, I’ve had to decide what steps to Parnassus I can help them achieve as punters and placekickers, as members of a team yet somewhat isolated by the nature of their tasks.

In a competitive college football league we don’t have time to work with beginners. So, after determining that the student already has certain level of skill, my object is to help him kick a football high, far or straight under great pressure and in a wide variety of weather and field conditions. Technical issues aside, almost fifty years of doing this has taught me that the young men must achieve balance–physical, mental, emotional and spiritual balance. And I must teach them how to teach themselves. In this case grades pretty much assign themselves (Did he make the field goal? Did the punt go far enough?) for both the student and the teacher, and neither can deny the results. One does not get an A for kicking a field goal down the middle, a B for slightly off-center, or a C for almost making it. On the other hand, the balance in his life and his ability to teach himself may show up only much later. Grades are, for him and for me, quite conditional things.

The trick to gradus ad Parnassum, then, is first to figure out where your students are in their journey–what level they have reached–and to estimate as well as you can how far they can reasonably get in the time you have them. I don’t think it matters what discipline you teach (although some, like mathematics, require a more carefully constructed lower step structure than others), the instruction must help the students get from where they are to where you realistically think they can get. This may require considerable consultation with your colleagues. My history department spent several years meeting almost weekly, working out the themes and readings and standards for a required freshman course called “Heritage.” A colleague in psychology spent two years reconstructing his introductory course, asking himself the question, “If I get these students only once in four years, what would I like them to take away from their liberal arts education that represents the best of what my discipline has to teach them?”

This is not an easy thing for teachers to do, but it is necessary. Once it is done, the examinations and other assignments become a railing that helps the students up the steps. If, that is, you can also figure out ways to tell them exactly where they are going. If they know what their assignments mean, and if all examinations represent faithfully what you have been doing in class, grades become easier for them to understand and less painful for you to give. The old Army way says, “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; tell ‘em; tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”

Students don’t grade us, of course. If they did, one ingredient in our grades would probably be the time it takes us to get exams and papers back to them. Do we grade students down or fail them for late work? One colleague was obsessed with grading. He could not stand to see a stack of bluebooks sit untouched; they reached out and grabbed him by the throat. Another colleague discovered an essay written by a brilliant student twenty-six years before, and dutifully graded it (A+!) and returned it to the university where the student is now writer-in-residence. I admit to having more of the tendencies of the latter than the former, and hereby offer mea culpa to the many students who were more patient with me than I often was with them.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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