How grade obsession harms children

We all know why it exists, but the grade point average (GPA) is one of the more destructive elements in American education.

Success is about being passionately good at one or two things, but students who want to get close to that 4.0 have to be prudentially balanced about every subject. In life, we want independent thinking and risk-taking, but the GPA system encourages students to be deferential and risk-averse, giving their teachers what they want.

Creative people are good at asking new questions, but the GPA rewards those who can answer other people's questions. The modern economy rewards those who can think in ways computers can't, but the GPA rewards people who can grind away at mental tasks they find boring. People are happiest when motivated intrinsically, but the GPA is the mother of all extrinsic motivations.

The GPA ethos takes spirited children and pushes them to be hard-working but complaisant. The GPA mentality means tremendous emphasis has now been placed on grit, the ability to trudge through long stretches of difficulty. Influenced by this culture, schools in America are busy teaching students to be gritty and to have "character" - by which they mean skills like self-discipline and resilience that contribute to career success.

Dr Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania is the researcher most associated with the study and popularisation of grit. And yet what I like about her new book, Grit, is the way she is pulling us away from the narrow, joyless intonations of that word, and pointing us beyond the way many schools are now teaching it.

Sure, she starts the book by describing grit as persevering through unpleasantness. She describes Beast Barracks, the physical ordeal that first-year West Point cadets have to endure.

She writes about high school students who grind away at homework for hours and athletes capable of practising in the most arduous way possible.

And yet she notes that moral purpose also contributes to grit. People who are motivated more by altruism than personal pleasure score higher on grit scales. She also notes that having a hopeful temperament contributes to perseverance.

Most important, Dr Duckworth notes that the quality of our longing matters. Gritty people are resilient and hard-working, sure. But they also, she writes, know in a very, very deep way what it is they want.

This is a crucial leap. It leads to a very different set of questions and approaches. How do we help students decide what they want? How do we improve the quality and ardour of their longing?

The GPA mentality is based on the supposition that we are thinking creatures. Young minds have to be taught self-discipline so they can acquire knowledge.

That's partly true, but as Professor James K.A. Smith notes in his own book, You Are What You Love, human beings are primarily defined by what we desire, not what we know. Our wants are at the core of our identity, the wellspring whence our actions flow.

At the highest level, our lives are directed towards some telos, or vision of the good life. Whether we are aware of it or not, we're all oriented around some set of goals. As David Foster Wallace put it in his Kenyon commencement address, "In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships."

Some worship money, or power or popularity or nursing or art, but everybody's life is organised around some longing. The heart is both a driving engine and a compass.

I don't know about you, but I'm really bad at being self-disciplined about things I don't care about. For me, and I suspect for many, hard work and resilience can only happen when there is a strong desire. Grit is thus downstream from longing. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.

Dr Duckworth herself has a very clear telos. As she defines it: "Use psychological science to help kids thrive." Throughout her book, you can feel her passion for her field and see how gritty she has been in pursuing her end.

Suppose you were designing a school to help students find their own clear end - as clear as that one. Say you were designing a school to elevate and intensify longings. Wouldn't you want to provide examples of people who have intense longings?

Wouldn't you want to encourage students to be obsessive about worthy things? Wouldn't you discuss which loves are higher than others and practices that habituate them towards those desires? Wouldn't you be all about providing students with new subjects to love?

In such a school, you might even de-emphasise the GPA mentality, which puts a tether on passionate interests and substitutes other people's longings for the student's own.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2016, with the headline 'How grade obsession harms children'. Print Edition | Subscribe