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Grades and Academic Freedom


THE SECTIONMEN OF Social Sciences 125 ("The American Economy: Conflict and Power") have petitioned the Committee on Educational Policy for permission to dispense with formal grades in their course. Their petition, which will be acted upon by the CEP next month, raises some important issues which should be carefully considered.

Grades, argues the petition, create an authoritarian relationship between teacher and student which is designed to prepare the student to accept such relationships on the job in later life. Grades teach the student to separate the "value" of his work from the pleasure or displeasure that it may have given him, thus ensuring that he will fit smoothly into an economic system which demands that workers respond predictably to purely economic incentives. And grades instill in the student that respect for individual achievement and corresponding disdain for group effort and cooperation which are essential to the functioning of a capitalist economy. In short, the Soc Sci 125 petition holds that the grading system stems from the needs of this country's present economic system rather than from any desire to help students themselves, and that in fact students are actually hurt in numerous ways by the system.

In making this argument, the Soc Sci 125 petition has demonstrated that grades can be viewed as an open intellectual issue rather than as a natural, timeless form of classroom organization. The truth of this does not depend on the validity of the petition's economic analysis of the grading system: simply by arguing their case, the Soc Sci 125 teachers have made grading a matter for debate.

IT IS THEREFORE glaringly inconsistent with the principle of academic freedom to require individual teachers to request the permission of the whole Faculty in order not to give grades in their own courses. So long as individual Faculty members are themselves convinced that the grading system carries particular socio-economic implications, each member of the Faculty should have the right to decide whether he wishes to use grades in his own course. The Faculty as a body has no more right to insist that a professor grade his students' work than it has to demand that he include a particular book on his course's reading list.

It might be argued that control over grading is necesary if the Faculty is to safeguard its educational standards. But the real way in which the Faculty maintains its standards is through its right to judge the credentials of its members. Since this system theoretically ensures that every Harvard teacher is qualified to be teaching, it is hard to see what additional good can be achieved by requiring teachers to grade their students' work.

On the other hand, it is easy to see how such a requirement can seriously hurt a course. In the particular case of Soc Sci 125, a large part of the course is devoted to the economic functions of the American educational system--and in particular to such features of that system as grading. To require that work done on this topic be graded would obviously undermine the intellectual honesty of the course. The same would be true, although perhaps less glaringly so, of any other course which does not assume the permanence and universality of present modes of economic production and distribution.

In view of the present flurry of petition-signing in support of academic freedom following the Planning 11-3b incident, it is to be hoped that Faculty members will recognize the need to extend the principle of academic freedom to the question of grades. Academic freedom should not be reduced to a club with which to defend the academic status quo against attacks by students. It is probably a radical concept, a belief that no intellectual problem can ever be so far beyond debate that it can be resolved legislatively, by corporate decision. The CEP and the Faculty should approve the Soc Sci 125 request, and should make it clear that in the future, the decision to grade or not to grade will be the prerogative of each individual Faculty member.

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