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In 1966, a student committee at the University of Pennsylvania issued a broadside about the poor quality of instruction at the institution. The committee denounced huge impersonal lecture courses where bored faculty members doled out disconnected bits of information, which students dutifully recorded in their notes and regurgitated on their exams. It called for smaller seminar-style classes, student evaluation of faculty members and an innovation that was gaining popularity across the country: the pass-fail option.
“It will lessen the pressure for grades by offering to the student a chance to study a certain number of courses for no end other than knowledge of the material,” the committee argued. Letting students choose pass or fail would promote “an attitude towards learning as an end rather than a means,” it underlined, which was “central to a liberal education.”
I thought of this report as I read a petition last week by students at Penn, who demanded that all classes for this semester be moved to pass-fail in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But their rationale had little to do with the ends of education, focusing instead on the means: specifically, online instruction.
Reasonably enough, the students argued that many of their classes “do not properly translate to an online environment.” They also noted correctly that many of their professors -- like myself -- have “little or no experience managing courses online.” So the only just thing to do was to substitute pass-fail for regular grading, lest anyone’s academic record suffer.
“It is much more fair to students that graduate schools and employers see ‘P’s on students’ transcripts than potentially risking students getting grades well below their G.P.A.,” the student petition argued, “potentially negating all the hard work they have done (and will do in the future), destroying their employment and graduate prospects.”
I get it. For the past few years, our students have been reporting skyrocketing levels of stress and anxiety about their academic status and futures. Add coronavirus, and you have the makings of a collective emotional crisis. If pass-fail will help ward that off, I’m 100 percent in favor of it.
But I also hope we can use this moment to recapture some of the initial spirit of the pass-fail option. It came out of the campus protest movements of the 1960s, which were focused not just on civil rights and the war in Vietnam but also on transforming teaching and learning. According to critics like Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the university had become a “machine” that spit out workers instead of educating citizens.
So the students took it upon themselves to reform the university, demanding instruction that engaged their passions and interests. And they took aim at the grading system, which seemed designed to inhibit both.
“Learning at Yale is sometimes like being one of Skinner’s rats,” a Yale University undergraduate psychology student wrote in 1968, referring to the famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner. “Our reward is a grade. And the outcome is not surprising: frequent hostility toward the system.”
So students pressed for the elimination of grades, which were replaced by written faculty evaluations at the University of California, Santa Cruz; SUNY Westbury and several other institutions. Most other universities continued to require grades but leavened them by allowing students to designate a minimum number of courses as pass-fail.
With the pass-fail option, an enthusiastic journalist wrote in 1967, students would be more likely to explore areas outside their academic comfort zones. “The physics major can take a poetry course,” the journalist explained, “without the risk of marring his record with a low grade.”
Over the next 10 years, most American colleges adopted pass-fail. But as the radical '60s morphed into the “Me Decade” of the '70s, something decidedly unradical happened: pass-fail became a way to game the system, not to change it. Students chose the option for classes with lots of work, or when they didn’t want to work at all.
At Oregon State University, where a series of courses was designated pass-fail for everyone, a professor who taught one of them reported that two-thirds of the students came to class unprepared, and just over half submitted required work on time. He passed all of them, he regretfully recalled, which was “an insult to the conscientious student.”
Other observers reported that career-oriented students were using pass-fail to boost their grades and job prospects, which took away from the exploration and joy that the option had sought to promote. “Students work hard, but there is a decline in serious intellectual focusing,” the president of Sarah Lawrence College noted in 1977. “They are full of anxiety about getting a job, but there is no motivation that proceeds from within.”
Since then, pass-fail has become a go-to move for the slothful and the anxious alike. In 2013, a study of eight public universities in one southern state found that growing numbers of both high- and low-achieving students used “academic forgiveness policies” -- withdrawing from classes without take a grade, repeating courses for a better one or selecting pass-fail -- to keep between a fifth and half of their coursework out of their GPAs.
And as of last week, over a dozen colleges had decided to expand their pass-fail options because of the coronavirus crisis. Citing “concerns about the shift to remote learning," Penn announced it would let students designate any course pass-fail. That’s different from the students’ original petition, to make all courses pass-fail, which was revised after some students complained that it would disadvantage people who were working toward a high grade.
And that speaks volumes about our academic culture, which values individual achievement -- and credentials -- above all. In the remainder of the term, as we squint into our laptops, let’s see if we can rejuvenate the idea of learning as an end in itself rather than as a route to status and success. I don’t know if that can happen online, to be honest, but we should try. Nobody’s job prospects are going to change radically over the next eight weeks, anyway.
But maybe their approach to education will. The coronavirus has existential implications, of course, which could reorient us around shared moral questions rather than narrow personal ones. Why are we on earth? What's the best way to live when we all know we're going to die? And how can education prepare us for it?
Maybe, at this strange and scary moment, pass-fail can inspire us to frame new answers. It doesn’t have to be just another way to get ahead. It can help us get outside our heads, too, and to imagine something bigger than ourselves.