Idol worship of the ‘A’ and the student/professor relationship

by Ronda Chervin

Many years ago a student of mine at a university on the West Coast approached me with this offer: “When I was in High School my Dad gave me $100 every time I got an “A” in a course. Now that I am in college, there is 50% waiting for you if you give me an “A.”

Shortly after this an older woman student asked me if she could talk to me in her automobile in the parking lot.   As she was chatting with me about problems at home I noticed a hand-gun sitting in the bin that usually holds hair-brushes, coca colas, etc. Looking down at the gun she started telling me how important it was to her to get an “A” in my class.

Walking through the halls of another college I noticed a young woman sitting on the floor in the corridor, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Bad news from home? A death in the family, I asked, as I put my arms around her?” “No,” she wailed. “I only got a B+ on my theology exam!”

Such examples might seem too bizarre for me to tell about. I have included them here because they are an extreme of more common, less dramatic, but also distressing attitudes of some students. One might wonder what the need to get “A’s” indicates about the student. Is the desire to get the “A” a positive sign of wanting to learn a great deal in each class? Does it indicate insecurity about one’s intelligence with a need for tangible proof of success in each and every class?   Is it related to the high cost of college education such that only a superior performance could justify the debt the parents incur or the student will be saddled with for many years after graduation? Perhaps all three factors come together in the efforts some students make to achieve the goal of “A” grades. Or, is a fourth, perhaps even more crucial: the widespread sense in our culture that our worth is exclusively dependent on the opinion of others, an index of which are grades?

For a professor, the knowledge that many students will feel like failures if they don’t get an “A” in the class poses some problems.   One wonders how the emphasis on grades affects the relationship between teacher and student. Consider the traditional model of the professor as sage and the student as disciple. Throughout history, we have beautiful examples of the relationship between mentoring sages and their student disciples: Plato and his brilliant disciple and critic, Aristotle; Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas…Thomas More and his followers; Gandhi and Nehru; Garrigou-Lagrange and the Maritains, Dietrich Von Hildebrand and his disciple Alice Jourdain, later to become his wife. Surely loving respect and praise were part of these relationships, but it would be hard to imagine any of the above mentioned disciples begging for a perfect grade.

Over the years, I have questioned whether the fixation on grades so prevalent in our times might have to do with a paradigm shift. Perhaps the ideal of the sage or expert instructing the receptive student/apprentice has been replaced subtly by a new model: the paid coach and his/her trainees.   In the latter relationship, the older coach is hired to make sure that the younger competitor brings home “the medals.” By analogy, it becomes the job of the professor to make sure that the students bring home the “A’s.” Being winner, as indicated by the “A,” is a compensation for the student’s high tuition fees. The “A’s” are viewed also, sometimes, as a hint of the high salaries to come which are, in turn, material symbols of a successful life. In a certain way, then, the trainee-student’s failure to earn an “A” in the class is laid partly to the failure of the coach-teacher to have designed a training program that guarantees competitive success.

A degeneration of the educational process from a noble endeavor calling forth the best efforts of teacher and student for the sake of wisdom and knowledge to a mercenary exchange certainly causes dismay in anyone of an idealistic bent. Those of us whose academic vision includes religious goals should be even more troubled by such a paradigm shift.

Yet I don’t want to be too hasty in fixing on the sage/disciple model as always the best one. If one looks at the shadow side of the traditional sage/disciple model we might wonder about the opportunities for arrogance on the side of the professor and slavish sometimes mindless devotion on the part of the student.   In the case of a mentor whose ideas are false or even demonic, this paradigm is particularly ominous. On the other hand, regarding the trainee/coach image, on the positive side, are we not pleased when student evaluations are allowed to influence the administration of a college to dethrone a professor who might be totally inept or irresponsible in the teaching role? If the most intelligent and diligent students cannot achieve an “A” in the class because, say, the professor refused to explain things clearly, isn’t that a fault of the professor rather than of the students? Would the stress experienced by these students at getting “B’s” or “C’s” in the class be a sign of neurotic insecurity or a legitimate objection to an unjust state of affairs?

Baffled by the intricacies of these questions I sometimes dream of gradeless free college education.   Then I recall some experiences of teaching community education classes without grades and with a nominal fee.   No tension, but often almost no willingness on the part of the student to read the books suggested by the admired professor or even to come regularly or on time to the classes.

I have written this article in the hope that readers of the University Concourse, interested as they are in dialogue and growth, will provide insights in this area so important for all Christus Magister teachers, students and administrators. n

Dr. Chervin is a nationally known author and speaker, and professor of philosophy at Our Lady of Corpus Christi Institute in Texas—a new Catholic college affiliated with Franciscan University through Christus Magister. She is a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Trinity. She taught philosophy at FUS from 1994-5.