Why Be Grade-Conscious?

Every March, whenever graduation rolls around, memes and opinion columns and articles and blogs begin circulating all repeating the same message: about how grades don’t actually measure anything important. A photo circulating around Facebook argues that grades essentially measure how good you are at deferring to authority, whether that authority be a professor or a text, and that grades don’t measure intelligence, creativity, people skills, or morality. A column in the Manila Bulletin argues that “most people who graduate with honors intend to graduate with honors but don’t intend to learn” and that honors are “an investment in image rather than in substance.” The column adds that grades don’t determine coolness under pressure, initiative and foresight, determination, clarity of mind, the willingness to get your hands dirty, and the willingness to give more than the minimum.

All of that is absolutely true. Very, very true. That’s why every college student, from freshman to fourth year, shares these insights around, along with stories about college dropouts and failures who then go on to become very successful in life. But a huge part of it is meant as a Take That! to the people who are running for honors, as if to say: “Ha! You’re not so special after all.” It’s only a small step from the true insight that grades don’t measure important life skills to the logical absurdity that people who have high grades probably don’t have those important life skills. (I mean, if you really wanted to measure the relationship between grades and things such as people skills and work ethic, you could always do correlation or something.)

In the interest of fair play, therefore, allow me to defend grade-conscious, or “GC” students. Much condescension towards GC people is related to perceived character traits, such as deliberately seeking the easiest, most A-able classes, sucking up to professors, being papansin in class, or a superiority complex that manifests itself in the GC’s disdain for groupmates. But the GC people I know are the opposite: they deliberately seek challenge. A friend of mine towards whom we used to make up all sorts of nicknames around the word “Quatro” (because Ateneo’s grading system assigns a value of 4.0 to an A, as opposed to UP’s grading system that assigns the same letter grade a value of 1.0) always makes sure to sign up for the toughest, most legendary professors available. The GC people I know are also generally quiet types in class: not shy, mind you, but confidently aloof.

GC students are generally portrayed as schemers who’ll do anything to get higher grades. Thus when we talk about GC students, we’re also delving into that classic binary opposition between “being in college to learn” and “being in college to get a job” that hounds pretty much every student from the recesses of their consciousness, no thanks in part to mixed signals being sent by the university itself. GC students are portrayed as unabashedly in the latter camp. An important distinction is that GC students are different from students who naturally have high grades but aren’t “conscious” about those grades. I suppose being GC means talking about grades to anyone who’ll listen.

Yet even among those with a genuine desire to learn, the ugly head of numbers rears itself. Once you find yourself at the top, it’s difficult to trade that away. The world of employment expects you to remain at the top. Polite conversation during dinner with relatives and family friends expects you to remain at the top. The one word that we absolutely do not want to hear is: sayang. When you have high grades, regardless of how seriously you take yourself and college life, it’s impossible not to be GC.

Being GC isn’t fun. When I learned that as of junior year, 1st semester, I had the highest QPI (or GPA) in my entire batch, two seconds of swelling pride was immediately replaced by months of anxiety that will not dissipate until either I finally graduate or I get a low grade somewhere. The pressure is intense. Latin honors, after all, do have a certain sort of appeal to them, the same kind of cosmetic appeal that bar passers get when they attach Atty. or Engr. to their names. Could I, perhaps, spend more time working on improving other aspects of my character, such as my quick temper, strong reluctance to deal with uncertainty, and shyness? Sure. Could I spend even more time working on improving both my character and my grades? Definitely.

Do I sincerely seek to learn in my classes? I think so. But I’m not stupid. Every professor has a kiliti, and the first thing I do in every class is to make sure I can find that sweet spot. Is this professor an exacting type who insists on complete and absolute mastery of the material? Challenge Accepted. Is this professor the type who favors students who come up with wild insights in class? Challenge Accepted. The ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, see what appeals to them, and be able to deliver that to them without compromising yourself – is that not, too, a ‘people skill’? In order to fully understand what’s being taught in class and properly synthesize it, I have to do extra reading – is that not, too, drive? In one class I’m taking, the only way to get an A is to do an extra, full-fledged paper – is that not going beyond the minimum?

I’m shallow, too. I like the idea of summa cum laude, and the prestige it brings, even if as the column rightfully points out, it’ll bring me only as far as my first paid job. But I see Latin honors as a challenge. Being GC isn’t “mainstream”, contrary to the opinion of some: it’s so widely derided that it’s downright marginalized. I realize the value of developing other things as well: a fundamental concern for the Other, which Ateneo has drummed into my head, and the development of expertise in a niche field with high anticipated demand, otherwise known as the “be so good they can’t ignore you” method, or the Steve Martin method. Yeah, yeah, education is not about achievement but about blah blah fluffy patronizing words. Guess what: it can be about both.

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