A Quiet Act of Impiety
Richard C. Lewontin '50, Agassiz Professor of Zoology, is trapped in a system he doesn't believe in. "I don't want to give any grades," he says. "The whole system of grades, exams, the idea of the necessity of being tested seems to me to be antithetical to teaching. I don't want to be an examiner--my function is not to weigh, to certify."
Unable to change the system, he does what he can to beat it. The "mechanism" he has used here and at the University of Chicago, where he taught previously, is to give everybody the same grade--a B.
"College has become a big apparatus for certifying a student's relative worth for medical schools, law schools, employers," Lewontin says. "My attitude is that that's their problem. I'm not going to allow them to ruin my teaching--they've managed to foist off on the universities a certification process which screws up teaching."
Lewontin's attitude has undergone a few changes over the years. When he first got to Harvard as an undergraduate, he cared so little about grades that he got thrown out for flunking all his courses. When he came back, he says, "My attitude was that I'd better get good grades so I could get into graduate school." Once there, he stopped working for grades and enjoyed things a lot more.
Lewontin says Harvard is one of the most screwed-up places around. "The students at Chicago were much more seriously interested in learning," he says. "Almost all I ever hear students here talking about is the requirements for their courses."
But he admits that this overriding interest in the trappings of academics is not entirely the fault of Harvard students. "The examination has been elevated to the status of a religion here. No wonder students take them so seriously--the faculty takes them so seriously," he says.
You get the feeling that Lewontin has been through this all before. He's no crusader; he even seems impatient at having to explain his reasons for opposing the grading system, which are to him self-evident. But he continues to commit quiet little acts of impiety against the religion of grades.
Last fall his unorthodox position became well-known when he and two other professors. Stephen J. Gould and S. Allen Counter Jr., taught Nat Sci 36, "Biological Determinism." The course was modeled as closely as possible on the uniform-grade system that Lewontin has used in his other course. Biology 152, "Population Genetics," with a few concessions to those students who, Lewontin says, "through no fault of their own--for reasons of med school or law school-have to get A's."
Anyone who wrote a ten-pope paper was guaranteed a "B"--so long as it wasn't pure bullshit," Lewontin says. Those who were in the market for "A"s could write longer, 15 or 20 pages. There was some confusion about what criteria were used in awarding "A"s, but Lewontin insists the emphasis was on quality as well as quantity. The only other requirement was an ungraded examination, which students were encouraged to take anonymously.
"We didn't want people to think we were going to judge them," Lewontin says. "You know the claim professors always make to explain why they give exams--'Oh, we just want to see whether people have learned anything.' Well, that's what we really wanted to do."
And did people learn as much as they would have if they had been compelled to learn? "I just don't know," he says. "My impression is that there was a lot more variance in how much people learned."
Lewontin admits that some people never did the reading or showed up for the lectures, but, he complains, students couldn't devote more of their time to Nat Sci 36 because they felt pressured to work hard for their other courses.
Lewontin says confidently that although he has some regrets about the course, he feels "the benefits far outweighed the costs." Others who taught the course are less confident.
Russell Lande, a Nat Sci 36 teaching fellow, says that sections were "a bit harder to conduct because people hadn't done the reading," but adds that he is still opposed to "any kind of coercive education."
Gould, who uses a conventional grading system in his other courses, says that Nat Sci 36 could not have been totally successful because the "utopian model of social change" that it was based on is not applicable to the Harvard situation.
"The reason we did it was not to change the whole system, but for our own internal consistency," he says. "We felt that if we were teaching a course of radical political content it would be inconsistent to use a conventional grading system."
Counter doesn't want to talk about the course at all. "That was purely Dick Lewontin's course," he says. "It was run the way he wanted it to be run."
Some students who took the course hated it. "Their basic complaint was this," Lewontin says: '"I know it was my fault that I didn't do the work, but I didn't do it because the coercion was absent.' On the one hand they were blaming themselves; on the other hand, they were blaming us."
The course will be given again next year, but there will be no exam and, Gould says, there will be an attempt to clear up the confusion about "A"s and "B"s by establishing clearer requirements for each.
"We're not completely happy, but it's the best we can do in an imperfect world," says Gould. "If somebody has a better suggestion, we'd love to hear it."