You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

For many years, when students would express anxiety over their grades, my first move was to try to talk them out their worries.

“Believe me,” I’d say. “Grades don’t matter nearly as much as you think they do. Lots of people get B’s and C’s and still go on to live successful lives.” I’d tell them about one of my college friends who failed out after one year, didn’t tell his parents, plugged away at the local community college for a year to gain readmittance, then went on to graduate and forge a successful career in banking.

I tried to sell them on the experience of college being as important, or more important, than their ultimate transcript—probably because this was my experience, but also because it’s true, or should be true, at least.

Writing recently at The New York Times, Jonathan Malesic captures my sentiments almost perfectly. “College is a unique time in your life to discover just how much your mind can do. Capacities like an ear for poetry, a grasp of geometry or a keen moral imagination may not pay off financially (though you never know), but they are part of who you are. That makes them worth cultivating. Doing so requires a community of teachers and fellow learners. Above all, it requires time—time to allow your mind to branch out, grow and blossom.”

I am particularly moved by the community aspect of the full educational project. I’ve always believed there’s something special and unique about the possibilities of bringing lots of people together in pursuit of these experiences, as should be happening in college.

I think my students believed my messaging about grades in the abstract, but the concrete structures of their lives were sending very different messages. Ultimately, one student, exasperated with my dismissing grade anxiety as irrational and unnecessary, decided to write their researched essay on the topic.

Reader, I was schooled. The student compiled all of the opportunities that were tied to one’s GPA; things like fellowships and scholarships, graduate school admittances, and postgraduation jobs were all expected, but the volume and importance of these things surprised me.

There were even opportunities I was not aware of that were tied to grades. Certain dorm assignments required high GPAs. Eligibility for some campus jobs, including being RAs, had relatively high GPAs tied to them. Local employers asked about one’s GPA. Study carrels at the library went to students on the honor roll.

The student illustrated a kind of Jenga tower allowing them to afford college and then take advantage of the value of the degree postgraduation and how a single slipup on GPA (going below a 3.5 cumulative, for example), may send the whole thing tumbling down.

I stopped pooh-poohing their worries about grades and started examining my practice of grading in order to disincentivize the pure grade-seeking behaviors that bugged me and instead align my assessment practices to deliver the rigorous experiences I believe to be central to learning to write.

My efforts were less than a drop in the bucket against the structural incentives students were facing, but they made me feel better about the work in my class, anyway.

At its core, Malesic’s essay is a paean to the concept of leisure as defined by philosopher Josef Pieper by way of Aristotle. Leisure is not rest so much as respite, the activities that, in Malesic’s words, “make it possible for workers to remain human.”

Malesic illustrates the importance of using the time during college to construct a worldview that makes sense to oneself. He was inspired by a professor who lived in the dorms as an adviser and would screen thought-provoking movies like My Dinner With Andre and Crimes and Misdemeanors, stoking nascent salons for the young and curious.

My pursuits were less intellectual, but perhaps still philosophical, such as games of “would you rather” with my friends, in which we’d debate such Sophie’s choices as “Would you rather eat a sandwich made with scabs or a sandwich of cigarette butts?” Most of the meaningful parts of college seemed to involve what might’ve looked from the outside like wasting time, certainly if the goal was to maximize my grades and future economic opportunities.

But the people of mine and Malesic’s generation went to college under a different bargain. Today’s students have become acculturated to a system of what I call “indefinite and undefined future payoff.” They’re told to do well in grade school and middle school to prepare for high school; high school is to get ready for college; college is the rest of your life.

Why would any young person arrive at college believing its purpose would be anything other than the continuing development to their human capital?

As Malesic himself acknowledges, “precious few areas of American life are not dominated by work” and “it’s not easy to make space for leisure within universities that look increasingly like corporations.”

Indeed and agreed.

Malesic concludes his piece by putting the onus on students to find these animating experiences, saying, “I am certain that if students show an interest in questions beyond how to become better workers, if they exhibit a desire to learn for its own sake, they will meet people who are just as eager for it as they are.”

He’s encouraging students to break out of a transactional mind-set and go foraging for experiences that may prove more meaningful and enduring. I think it’s good advice, as far as it goes, but I’m not convinced to goes all that far.

From my perspective (emphasis on the my) this is like asking students to look for sustenance in a parched landscape. Sure, there’s a few morsels to be found if you go looking hard enough, but do not be prepared for your institution to roll out a bounty, no matter what the brochures might promise.

If you are interested in languages and you are enrolled at West Virginia University, you’re not going to find these experiences. If you go searching at the institutions where the vast majority of faculty are contingent part-timers, you’re not going to find them. Where do the students of New College in Florida who matriculated before the takeover by Ron DeSantis/Christopher Rufo go for these things?

How do you find time to experience the professorial classic movie salon if you are working full-time in order to afford the opportunity of pursuing a degree?

Ultimately, Malesic’s piece, despite all my agreement, disappoints me because it ultimately stops at nostalgia[1] and to my mind provides a kind of comfort—primarily to the readership of The New York Times—that (inadvertently, no doubt) soft-pedals the degree to which opportunities—the ones we all believe are the underpinning of a worthwhile education that means something other than increasing one’s value as an instrument of capital—are under threat.

I actually don’t mean “under threat.” I mean “have been obliterated,” never to return.

Malesic does share a couple of examples of faculty members defying the system, and they are indeed inspiring, but they are also undoubtedly rare and more appropriately viewed as acts of defiance than true fulfillment of institutional or societal priorities.

If I let myself, I can get pretty angry over nostalgia like Malesic’s substituting for structural critique and general disgust over how aspects of education that people of my generation could take for granted have been destroyed through some combination of deliberate action by some and neglect by others. His advice is sound for students matriculating now, but what about the students 10 years from now? Forty years from now?

My thoughts about these issues have taken a dark turn lately, and readers should take this into account as they consider my perspective. I’ve been starting to feel like a Cassandra figure, having spent over a decade now sounding alarms about the forces coming for the values we claim our institutions are meant to embody, only to see these worries come true, again and again.

Maybe Malesic is correct and all we have left is nostalgia and our best hope is young people latching on to the old ways as some kids have embraced vinyl records or flip phones as an antidote to digital culture. Over time, out of the scorched earth, some green shoots will grow.

I want that to be true. I want all students to heed Malesic’s advice. It will be to their benefit to do so. I want to insist, as I did in last week’s blog post, that students be made to face up to the challenge of knowing their own minds and expressing their minds with writing.

I also want all of us to recognize that Malesic’s advice is propping up a fiction and the failure to see past these fictions is what has led us into this present mess.

I honestly don’t know how to square that circle, other than by insisting more than one thing can be true at the same time.

Students must learn.

We make it very difficult for students to learn.

[1] Embracing nostalgia is something of a plague in The New York Times op-ed section, with the best/worst example being David Brooks, a man who never met a problem that couldn’t be solved by harkening back to a time that never truly existed. I’m a fan of Malesic’s work, but it’s not accidental that writing about higher education rooted in this kind of nostalgic mode finds favor in the paper of record.

Next Story

Written By