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As Harvard welcomes its largest-ever cohort of freshmen onto campus, more students than ever will come to realize an ironic truth. Although a passion for learning may have brought them here, perhaps an even more critical aspect of their experience will be unlearning what they have been taught their whole lives and will continue to be taught in many of Harvard’s classes. This begins with the education system itself.
New students need to confront and reject the logics and values of the multiple systems of oppression that have and will continue to warp their educational experiences. However, this is no simple task: Many of these harmful ideas disguise themselves in seemingly benign and ubiquitous social values and practices, at which most people would never blink twice.
Perhaps the most critical set of ideas to unlearn will be their understanding of the process of learning in the first place. Although most of us are aware that the American education system is deeply inequitable, other than through snarky jokes and eye-rolls behind teacher’s backs, many students have not questioned the practice of grading itself; specifically, the process of using a standardized grading scale to motivate, measure, and communicate student’s learning. This toxic approach to education is largely responsible for the high levels of chronic stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation amongst young people, especially at elite institutions like Harvard where widespread imposter syndrome is added to the mix.
Grading helps create these problems, as well as a host of others, because it hinders rather than motivates learning. The fundamental logic of grading — that offering rewards makes people more likely to repeat behavior, or to behave better — has been disproven in multiple studies. In fact, psychological studies on the impacts of rewards and grading consistently find that rewards cause people to perform worse, lose internal drive, and suffer psychologically. Offering the reward actually implicitly devalues the behavior by suggesting it is something that you must be compensated to do. Arbitrary numbers and letters fail to accurately communicate how well a student has learned, yet most students place value on these metrics rather than comments and feedback from their instructors. Grading further hinders learning by encouraging students to cheat or mislead their teachers, making it harder for teachers to actually gauge their students’ needs.
Even more problematic, however, are the deeply hierarchical values underlying the system of grading. Our education system emulates capitalist social values by treating grades as a pseudo-currency and suggesting that the people with the most currency — the highest GPAs — have more merit and value than others. Some students are “gifted and talented” and thus worthy of elite higher education, while others are deemed failures destined for a prison cell, especially Black and poor children.
Students are taught that performance determines a person’s ability, which in turn determines their worth, poisoning their mental health. Comparative levels of intellect, ability, and talent as measured by grades and standardized tests become a core and fixed part of one’s identity at an early age. This notion of a fixed general intelligence that determines worth is an ableist and historically racist product of the eugenics movement, from which standardized tests and general intelligence tests were born and that modern grading (which also emerged around the same time in the early 1900s) perpetuates.
Under a grading regime, the point of learning becomes to compete and gain more grade points than others instead of developing the skills to contribute to your community or explore your interests. Success comes from superiority through competition with others while collaboration is disincentivized. Students are taught to sacrifice their basic health needs and mental stability instead of prioritizing proper sleep, nutrition, and shelter, all of which are essential to learning. Accommodations for neurodivergent and disabled students are often inadequate or haphazardly implemented rather than tailored to each student’s individual needs. Under standardized education systems, children are viewed as deviant beings who must be coerced into learning instead of naturally curious, creative, and eager students.
Thus, as we head into our first school year since the pandemic as a whole community, we must revolutionize our values by unlearning and relearning what it means to be students. We must realize that we should feel no shame in struggling or asking for help because learning at your own pace does not make you any less intelligent or worthy. We should feel successful not from competing with their peers but from building community with them through collaboration, inclusion, and compassion.
David E. Lewis ’24 lives in Quincy House. His column “Unlearning Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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