A Debauchery of the Mind

By Professor of English Joshua Jeffrey


I hate grades.

I don’t mean that I hate grading, although that might be somewhat accurate as well. I think most members of my profession have some level of distaste for the process of actually sitting down and working through a stack of quizzes or exams. (With apologies to Professor Caldwell, who is an exception in this as in so many other things.) But my own personal distaste for grades has little or nothing to do with the process of assigning them. It has everything to do with the effect they have on students afterwards.

Let me begin by suggesting that all children are born with a genuine desire to know the truth and to gain knowledge of the world. This is not a particular difficult claim; beyond pointing to Ecclesiastes 3:11, John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, or the works of British educational theorist Charlotte Mason, I can simply point to any given 3-5 year old who asks the question “why?” every 30 seconds. Yes, it becomes a game to annoy the parents eventually, but there’s a window in which it is pure curiosity, pure desire to know.

And then school happens. And something changes. Slowly, but surely, over the course of years, students seem to lose their love of learning and start to be driven instead by a desire to achieve the highest grades possible. That seems like a virtue, but I’m not sure that it is.

A student who is driven by a desire to achieve the highest grades will rarely take risks for the sake of learning. Taking an extremely difficult class, learning a tremendous amount, and achieving a C average will be seen as a failure, not as a success; and taking a “blow-off” class for the easy A will be seen as a success, when it rightly should be seen as a failure.

Charlotte Mason, the aforementioned educational theorist, put it this way:

It seems to me that education, which appeals to the desire for wealth (marks, prizes, scholarships, or the like), or to the desire of excelling (as in the taking of places, etc.), or to any other of the natural desires, except that for knowledge, destroys the balance of character; and, what is even more fatal, destroys by inanition that desire for and delight in knowledge which is meant for our joy and enrichment through the whole of life.

Mason suggests that education which is driven by any desire other than the desire for knowledge will effectively destroy the love of learning. Students who try to learn material for the sake of getting a good grade (so that they get into a good college, so that they get a good job, so that they can make lots of money, so that they can live comfortably and retire at a good time) will gradually lose all real interest in and enjoyment of the actual subjects they are studying. The love of learning, the joy of learning, will be extinguished. And a child (or an adult!) who loses their love of learning won’t merely become a worse student, but a poorer human being.

Mason referred to what she called “mark-hunger,” but what we might call “grade-hunger,” as a “debauchery of the mind.” To be obsessed with grades, constantly wanting to get a higher number on the page or the report card, was indicative in her view of deeply disordered loves and priorities. Her own solution, incidentally, was not to give numerical or alphabetical grades at all. She simply judged work either acceptable, if it represented the student’s genuine best effort, or unacceptable if it did not (upon which the student would redo the work until it was deemed acceptable).

While taking Charlotte Mason’s particular approach to solving the problem is not likely something we would ever do at Cambridge, we can at least recognize, as students, faculty, and parents, that the problem itself is present here. To far too many of us, grades matter more than learning. Our loves are, in this as in so many other things, out of order. So how do we take a step towards reordering our loves?

First, it is good to be reminded that the love of learning is, at its heart, loving the Lord our God with all our mind. Applying ourselves to the study of His creation and Himself, whether in a theology class or a biology lab, is to declare His creation and Himself worthy of our attention and efforts, and thus (as the etymology of the word suggests) our studies become a form of worship.

Second, if we reimagine our studies as worship, then our standards for success will change.

My father has been a university professor for about 50 years. In that time, he’s taught countless students, and presumably the vast majority of them have disappeared from his memory. He remembers, certainly, those who did stellar work and wrote beautiful papers. But some of the ones he remembers best and most fondly, he has told me, are the ones who consistently tried their absolute hardest and through an almost transcendent effort managed to scrape by with a C.

Jesus cried out with joy at the offering of the widow’s two copper coins—not because of their value, but because they represented the best, indeed all, that she had to give.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear! But for the hard of hearing I offer this final word.

In our studies, as in all of our life, we ought to do the best we can do not for our own sakes, but as an offering and sacrifice to God. And if, at the end of the day, in the quiet of our hearts, we can truthfully say “I did the best that I could do,” then we can trust that the only One whose judgment truly matters looks upon us with love and overflowing pride.

What does a number on a report card matter, in the light of that?