The Disease

Yesterday while browsing the top articles on, I ran across one entitled “The Case Against Grades.” Against my better judgment, I opened and read it. As my brain attempted to process phrases like “stress and fear of failing tests lead to classic symptoms of procrastination, avoidance, confusion and low self-esteem,” I could feel my blood start to boil. Another – god, I’m getting tired of these – misdirected attack of the symptom, not the disease.

First, the surface issue, the symptom. After many years of schooling, I’m the first to admit that the “A – F” scale can be rather unpleasant. It’s not ideal, I get it, and perhaps it could use some slight modification. But to get rid of it altogether is ridiculous and, more importantly, sad. Here’s why.

Now the underlying issue, the disease. In the article, Michael Thomsen discusses a University of Cape Town survey investigating stress and fear of failing (his words, not mine). One subject from the survey said, “It’s one of those things where if I have to fail a test, I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t fail a test. It’s a really serious strain.’” Another reported, “But I just didn’t like the fact that I had failed, so I moved onto something else.” Because grades make kids feel bad, Thomsen, as well as many other bright, intelligent, and highly misguided people, believe we should get rid of them. In that case, we should also get rid of vaccinations. And, of course, all medicine that tastes bad. Shots hurt and disgusting medicine tastes, well, disgusting. Thus, they must be eliminated. Right?

Please tell me, oh faithful blog readers, that you see the sickening hole in this logic. My generation is a product of coddling and we are passing that coddling onto our own children. We don’t like to see our kids hurt, we don’t like to see them want for anything, and we certainly don’t like to see them fail. So we do whatever we can to prevent them from experiencing pain. But eventually, as you undoubtedly know, everyone must experience pain. Eventually, all children get a bad grade, they get dumped, they sit the bench, they get picked last. Our job isn’t to prevent this stuff from happening; it’s to prepare them for when it does happen. And it will happen. This – this warped notion that we must protect our children from failure and their subsequent breakdown when failure occurs – is what causes low self-esteem. Not the grading system.

Getting rid of grades means getting rid of accountability, of admitting a lack of something – effort, time, and yes, even ability. Because we’re not all awesome at everything. We’re just not.

Ironically, right below the link for “The Case Against Grades” was an article about top baby names of 2013. Regrettably, I clicked on that link too. Not surprisingly, “Messiah” and “King” are the fastest-growing boy names of 2013. Talk about putting our children on a pedestal! In this imperfect world, we are telling them they’re perfect. And they’re believing us. No wonder the grading system is a “really serious strain” for students – it’s a constant reminder that they’re fallible.

How do we stop this? Well, the way I see it, we can start by getting rid of names like “Messiah” and “King.” We can start by exposing them to failure, by explaining that it’s an inevitable part of life, by reminding them that their self-esteem isn’t based on an “F”, but on their ability to accept it, fix it, and move on from it.

We can start by reminding them that a good grade, like all things worth striving for, is earned – not given.

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