‘Practical’ because grades are useful.

And ‘joke’ because school replaced the reasons for their usefulness while no one was looking.

I had a panic attack in a psychology class after getting a C+ on a test. I know I love psychology. I have books by Freud, Jung, and Nietzsche on my bookshelf. But the C+ meant, “no, actually, you don’t. You don’t love psychology. Because if you did, you would have gotten an A.” I thought my future was over. This is it. I’ve been lying to myself. Psychology isn’t for me. I’m not cut out for this. I’ll never be successful in this field, even though I love this subject. If I love psychology, then why did I get a C+?

My professor construed everything we learned as relative only as the material related to us getting into Big College. In my professor I caught not one sparkle of love for psychology. Test results were more important than how the material related to us and the world. My professor was a nice guy. Whenever I’d ask a question, he’d say, “think of it this way…so that you can get into Big College.”

The C+ was a mistake. My professor forgot to grade 2 pages of my exam. But the point still stands. He pulled the practical joke, and I fell for it. For a moment, I believed that all I was learning was only to get me into Big College. I was studying the right material, in the right order, making all the right connections. I ended up getting an A. I wrote my essay exams exactly how he wanted them to be written. He had our best interest in heart, after all. What’s so bad about helping kids get into Big College?

Along with studying Big College Psychology, I was studying Irrelevant Psychology. At the time I introduced myself to Jung, while the class was stuck on Skinner. Maybe I’d get to behaviorism in my own roundabout way. But, no-no-no! Can’t do that. Stick to the path. Because pedagogy would have it that you learn the field in a specific order. Because this order is best. This order has your best interest at heart.

I don’t mean to be pessimistic about how professors organize material. Order matters. If the material were organized any other way, it wouldn’t make sense. The fundamentals are important. The building blocks, the interactions between the thinkers and theorists of the field, it all matters. You can’t make sense of a subject if you’re starting with the most advanced stuff.

But the practical joke of grades is the misguided belief that high grades means you’re an expert. That high grades are the only reason to study. High grades don’t mean jack shit. You’re allowed to study something because you love it. (Even more than your professor.)

High grades mean you’re good at staying on the path the professor (or the College) thinks is best for you, and the rest of the class. This assumes that your professor knows what path is best for you and the rest of the class. Which means that the manner in which your professor has organized the material fits the expectations of…who, exactly? Where is this path leading? What is the endgame of all these tests? Is it merely to get an A? To walk around with breeches full of unearned wisdom, with permission to talk a little bit louder in public, with a spoonful of more confidence than usual, when your friend asks you about neuroanatomy? Or, are these tests reminders that we’re studying is what we want to study?

The practical joke of high grades teaches us that extrinsic motivation is the only path to expertise.

Intrinsic motivation to study something, for the love of studying it, is a better, healthier, more beautiful path leading not only to expertise, not only to a head full of memorized terms and dots connected, but to a true love of knowledge.

P.S: Today I got a 52/100 on my Psychology Research Methods final exam. No panic attack. And somehow I still have an A-.


Instead of marveling at the beauty of organic chemistry, the diagrams of how these things are constructed…how they interact together…and how human biology creates human, breathing organisms, and how these organisms can group together, to form an entire complex social structure and how that structure goes on to influence history…instead of seeing the beauty and interconnectedness of all these details that is the universe itself, you’re worrying about some mark on paper.

R.C Waldun

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