I know you’re thinking, “Oh, here comes another old professor talking about how we kids today are all messed up.” We “lack perspective.” We “don’t get it” because we’re too “jacked in.” Well, I assure you the last thing I want is to be immediately dismissed as “obviously lame,” or “cranky and irrelevant.” Maybe I should “tweeter” you this message instead of writing it for a newspaper so you don’t assume it’s just another attempt to impart the “wisdom” of some by-gone generation. I promise that what I have to say about your grade-fetish isn’t anything like that.
You see, back in my day we didn’t care as much about grades as you Millennials do. I have a feeling that the unmistakable grade inflation we have seen over the past three decades has only caused you to make a real fetish out of the “A,” the object of your obsession. Don’t worry, this is not a scold. If our system of evaluating your academic performance has turned you into A-addicts, it’s the fault of those of us who maintain the system.
But let’s not point fingers. Except one, to point out that one of the effects of your grade obsession within a system that only rewards you when you are “right” is that you become intellectually risk-averse or risk-phobic. I’m worried about this because, as a historian, I am aware of the many examples of people who have done great things at the expense of being right. Let me give you some examples of people who were splendidly wrong.
Eve was wrong. I know the standard interpretation is that she was weak and easily tempted by the serpent to eat forbidden fruit. But the ensuing, famous story would’ve been pretty short if she hadn’t. Eve may be the most interesting character in all of Genesis. Why? The forbidden fruit was knowledge: She dared to know and she disobeyed a big authority figure to find out. And that was wrong within the context of the book of Genesis. I believe God gave her a “C-,” along with some other punishments.
Socrates was wrong. He challenged the ancient Athenian government to consider whether some of their actions were morally unjustified and pestered them with rational arguments. That was wrong, they said. They convicted him of corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the right gods, and punished him with death by poison. I think that means he got an “F.”
Galileo was wrong. He said that the Earth was not the center of the universe and that the planets revolve around the sun, and, “Won’t you please look in my telescope so I can show you?” Well, that was wrong. The papacy set up an inquisition and read his books (which received a “D”). They asked him some questions, and then told him he was wrong … everything revolves around the Earth. His punishment: He had to say so … in public.
Margaret Sanger was wrong. Sanger believed — as a retired nurse who had attended many cases in which poor, immigrant women suffered from too-frequent pregnancies — that women should learn how they become pregnant and how they might avoid unwanted pregnancy. Well … that was wrong. When she opened a clinic that taught women about sexuality, pregnancy and how to avoid it, she was arrested for obscenity and causing a public nuisance. Clients just wanted to know … but that was wrong. A judge told her why: He said, “Women do not have the right to copulate with the feeling of security that no conception will result.” Margaret got a “D-” in women’s health from that judge. For the “final exam” the judge assigned her to stop teaching women how to prevent pregnancy: She got an “F” and went to prison with forced labor.
Martin Luther King Jr. was wrong. I know because I’ve read that he was sent to jail 29 times in his life. Judges in Alabama and Georgia kept giving him “F’s” and apparently making him repeat the course, which he continually failed. I like his style of civil disobedience because he made a virtue out of being wrong. He said, correctly, that it highlighted injustice when he was imprisoned for demanding that people be treated fairly.
I’m not encouraging you to make a virtue out of getting arrested. I’m not even suggesting you refuse to do what your professors ask or reject the worldviews we operate in. We think we’re right about everything we teach you, and we’re probably right sometimes. Blindly rejecting everything you’re taught like an angry teenager or refusing to accept all of the premises on which our society is built won’t get you very far.
My point is that we are not deliberately unjust or corrupt in our pedagogies. Furthermore, I think it’s important to know and appreciate your heritage. Part of that heritage includes some people who dared to be wrong and were willing to suffer the consequences. Maybe you lovers of “A’s” think it’s dangerous to disagree with your professors. It’s not. In fact, maybe it’s only dangerous to worry too much about your GPA, and not have the courage to push past us.