John Willson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College, reflects at the Imaginative Conservative on “the chief cruelty of our profession: assigning our students to paradise, purgatory, or the inferno with the stroke of a pen.” He reminds us:
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. . . .
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.
Rather than focusing exclusively on standardized tests and grade point averages, teachers should “work out a gradus ad Parnassum,” he argues:
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.” . . .
The trick to [this mindset] 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.
Today’s educational benchmarks are unlikely to go away anytime soon, but I commend to you Dr. Willson’s whole essay, which contains many insights from his fifty years of teaching.