“[The] grade-point average is one of the more destructive elements in American education.”
So says David Brooks in a recent Op-Ed for the New York Times (here).
In his view:
“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.”
For the record, I like Brooks. Yet my question now is whether he’s right in this particular contention. As a teacher, I’ve thought about the matter a bit, and I’ve even had my own frustrations with the American elevation of broad-spectrum academic standards (like GPA).
Here’s a personal example:
ON MATH AND HERESY
After grad school, I wanted to do a PhD in theology. Yet in America, a key part of the application process is one’s GRE score. The GRE is something like the ACT on steroids, and it includes a written composition portion along with verbal and quantitative elements (aka “math”).
Sadly, I am terrible at math. Actually, I don’t “math,” which is one reason I specialized in trinitarian theology. In the Trinity, One = Three and Three = One. And if you object to that with “math,” you’re a heretic.
The GRE is a heretic (*sarcasm).
So while I achieved the highest possible mark on my written composition, my overall score was torpedoed by important theological skills like Long Division. I was not accepted.
Then I applied to a great school in the UK (Manchester). Oddly, their entrance requirements had to do with (wait for it…) theology.
I got in, and finished ahead of schedule.
This brings me back to Brooks’ claim:
“Success is about being passionately good at one or two things, [not] prudentially balanced about every subject.”
But here’s a complicating factor.
At the same time that Brooks is critiquing the kind of broad-spectrum acumen that the GPA rewards, others are decrying the technical specialization that is rapidly replacing a liberal arts education.
The argument here is that while the migration to specialized STEM majors (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) may lead to a bigger paycheck initially, it can also fail to form the person broadly. And in some cases (not all), this results in highly specialized morons.
To back this up, many recent articles have highlighted the benefits of a broad-spectrum liberal arts education, even for those who eventually go into fields like business, science, and technology.
One of these articles comes from a Wheaton College grad, Alex Soholt. As he argues (here), broad training in the liberal arts has major benefits over exclusive specialization. Here are a few:
- Liberal (i.e. “broad”) education teaches students how to think and learn for a lifetime. It does so by emphasizing a variety of skills, especially critical thinking and analysis that go far beyond the execution of a particular task.
- Liberal education helps students to see things whole. As Soholt notes, the industries of the world are connected, like systems in a human body. If one fails, others are affected. Think, for instance, about the housing crisis of 2008, and the ensuing domino effect.
- Liberal education enhances wisdom and faith. This is crucial. Education is meant to form the person, not just enable the acquisition of a paycheck. Think again of the housing crisis, and ponder what even the barest amount of morality and wisdom from the big banks would have done to change things. Just because something is lucrative and legal, that doesn’t mean it’s wise.
- Liberal education contributes to joy. This last point is among the most important, but I’d like to address it through another personal example/rant.
WHY SHAKESPEARE DIDN’T MAKE: A RANT
For this semester, I was looking forward to auditing our college Shakespeare class. I have always wanted to do this, and the course only happens every couple years. (see here for why I decided to start doing this.) I talked with the professor, and got permission.
Then a problem emerged. Shakespeare didn’t “make.” In essence, no one else signed up to take it. More precisely, out of an undergraduate population of around six hundred students, two people enrolled in Shakespeare. Two!!!
“How is that possible!?” I asked. How is it that in a liberal arts university, only two people out of six hundred signed up to study the single most important writer in the English language? How can that be!?
I’ll tell you how. Or rather, I’ll tell you one reason. In large measure, we have forgotten that education is not just about checking off requirements so that you can graduate. It’s not just about staying (barely) eligible so that you can play your sport. Nor is it merely about maximizing your “earning potential.” Education is also about maximizing JOY. And I don’t care what your major is, learning to appreciate great literature, great art, and great thinkers will make YOU better, no matter what field you settle in.
Increasingly, this reality is being noticed even in business and technology sectors, which have begun hiring more English and humanities majors in search of people who can write well, think broadly, and draw upon a number of disciplines (see here).
A POSSIBLE COMPROMISE
So which is it?
Should we stress being “passionately good at one or two things” (Brooks)—and perhaps deemphasize the GPA? Or should we encourage students to study broadly as in a true liberal arts environment?
The answer is “Yes.”
At some point, one must drill deeply into an area of specialization. This is good. And at this stage, a poor score in an unrelated field (in my case, math) should not impede one as much as it sometimes does in the American model. Brooks is right about this. And too much focus on the GPA is a problem.
Yet at the same time, we must encourage undergraduate students especially to use electives to dabble widely, especially in the liberal arts. This way, they are more likely to be shaped as whole people and not just as narrowly knowledgeable one-trick ponies.
This need not mean abolishing the GPA, but it does mean changing how we use it.
Along these lines, one option might be to remove the threat of a GPA-crushing score in electives (like Shakespeare) so that non-specialists might be more apt to take such courses. A further step would be to ensure that students actually have said electives—as some majors, even in liberal arts environments, leave no room for them.
Finally, both students and parents must change the way they think about education in general. We must get beyond the soulless notion that the only classes that matter are those that teach me to do the immediate skill that I desire to do upon graduation.
Let’s be honest, that skill may not even exist fifteen years from now, but the ability to analyze, write, speak, think, and create is timeless.
That’s my two cents.
Now, what did I leave out?
And what do you think of Brooks’ claim?
 Of course, it is equally possible that I was denied for completely different and reasons. But this likelihood is more damaging to my self-esteem. Better to blame math.