The Academic Bias Against Contemplative Students

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With the new
academic year now under way at American colleges and universities,
millions of new course syllabi will have been handed out to undergraduate
and graduate students around the country. These syllabi will spell
out, (usually in shockingly tepid, legalistic detail), the criteria
by which students will be judged for their final course grades.
One of the most ubiquitous conditions spelled out in these syllabi
will be a seemingly innocuous requirement that students "participate"
in some form or another during class meetings. The "participation"
requirement seems innocent enough (who, after all, would oppose
students taking an active part in their own instruction?), but it
is almost invariably the case that professors proclaim that they
intend to grade student participation. There are a number
of seriously myopic and counterproductive consequences that flow
from this propensity to grade class participation in the academic
world, the sum of which amount to a serious bias against shy students,
and, what is even more troubling, contemplative students.

The first
baneful effect of grading class participation flows from the fact
that the very word "participation" can be used in a number
of ways. While one can "participate" in the proceedings
of a conference, one can also "participate" in a riot.
Professors and teaching assistants, of course, only intend to promote
the former of these types of participation, but the difficulty of
discriminating "good" participation from "bad"
participation creates a fog of uncertainty for both students and
professors. This uncertainty about what participation is "good,"
moreover, creates an inherent bias against contemplative students
who are keen enough to recognize that there is a difference between
constructively participating and detrimentally participating in
class discussions. For students too dull to realize that there are
times to keep your mouth shut, there arises no problem hereu2014they
continue to raise their hands and blurt out whatever fleeting and
superficial thoughts happen to cross their minds. The contemplative
or shy student prudently holds his tongue and receives no points,
while the dullard, who disrupts class with his moronic ejaculations,
receives credit for participating.

Another
baneful effect of grading participation arises from the general
incentive that this creates to speak rather than to listen in class.
One of the main purposes of a college education is to learn complex
ideas from men who are (or, I should say, claim to be) thoroughly
accomplished in their fields. This simply cannot be effectively
accomplished with students constantly raising their hands and blurting
out whatever they happen to think at the moment in order to get
participation pointsu2014which is exactly what grading participation
serves to reward while simultaneously punishing those who want to
listen and learn from the professor rather than from their blabber-mouthed
peers.

Another main
purpose of a college education is to foster the ability to take
part in arguments. Arguments are not, however, simply verbal free-for-alls.
On the contrary, there is a very vital logical structure to arguments
that must be painstakingly learned, with special attention to the
fallacies that undermine rational argumentation. In other words,
learning how to argue means learning how to carefully listen to
another person's position, and respond with thought out,
logically defensible and non-fallacious counterarguments. This form
of careful and well-reasoned argumentation, however, rarely occurs
in the course of class discussions, for the simple reason that there
is not enough time in the course of verbally arguing to thoroughly
consider one's own argument, let alone the argument of one's opponents.
The contemplative student is aware of this problem, and is wary
of entering class discussions where half-baked arguments masquerade
as logically-defensible arguments. Again, the contemplative student
prudently avoids participating in arguments in which he feels the
positions of each side cannot be fully appreciated, while the loudmouthed
dullard jumps right in, completely oblivious to the possibility
that his argument might not be well thought out. And again, the
contemplative student receives no participation points, while the
loudmouthed dullard earns still more.

An even
more serious problem arises from the fact that these participation
points are almost invariably taken away from what were previously
points for writing a term paper. The term paper is precisely the
place for well-reasoned and logically defensible arguments, because
it forces students to absorb complex ideas throughout the semester,
to critically analyze these ideas, and to present and defend an
argument of their own. Contemplative students know that the term
paper is the place where their arguments can be given the thoughtful
attention that they deserve, and where they can present well-reasoned
criticisms of other arguments. The grading of participation, however,
(especially in cases where participation accounts for 30% or more
of the overall course grade), serves to minimize the accomplishment
of a well-reasoned written argument, while it simultaneously serves
to inflate the value of participating in rhetorical combat with
dubious logical arguments.

As an example
of how ridiculous the grading of participation can actually become,
imagine three students in an introductory class where class participation
accounts for 20% of the overall course grade and the term paper
accounts for 30% of the overall course grade. Student #1 is a dull-witted
and loudmouthed youth, while student #2 is a contemplative person
who does not like to argue about things that haven't been fully
thought out, and student #3 is simply a shy student who doesn't
like to speak in class. Now, over the course of the semester, student
#1 "participates" in class discussions all the time, offering
all sorts of trivial and worthless arguments and simple declarations
about his opinions. Students #2 and #3, on the other hand, rarely
participate in the class discussions, but, because they listen attentively
to the professor's lectures all semester, they have learned a great
deal about the subject under study. When it comes time to hand in
term papers, student #1 turns in a paper that resembles his classroom
outbursts; it is trivial and worthless because during class he is
always thinking about what to say rather than listening to the professor.
Students #2 and #3, on the other hand, turn in papers that are well-reasoned
and carefully considered as a result of their quiet attention in
class. Because the professor has chosen to grade participation,
however, student #1 will likely receive the same, and in some cases
higher, grade than students #2 and #3 because he will have earned
100% of the participation points! The professor will have created
a situation in which loudmouthed dullards are given the same or
more credit than the students who are attentive listeners and careful
writers. Does this seem either fair or reasonable?

An obvious
solution to the problem I am discussing here is to stop grading
class participation. I would like to suggest, however, that a more
far-reaching solution is called for. The problem is not so much
one of grading as it is a failure to properly segregate students
of differing abilities, and this failure to segregate students is
wholly the effect of a socialized education system. The system of
socialized education always ends up lumping all students together
into a giant, supposedly indistinguishable, mass that is capable
of being "graded" by exactly the same standards. All public
school students, from kindergarten to the state university, are
judged by exactly the same criteria at each stage of their education.
The fact that students learn in different ways and have different
talents is completely lost.

Purely private
schools, on the other hand, cannot afford to lump their students
all together at the risk of belittling or stunting the abilities
of certain students (e.g., contemplative or shy students). In fact,
purely private schools, (that is, schools who compete for students
on the purely free market), absolutely must not belittle,
or grade in a biased manner, the abilities of their customer-students
who voluntarily attend their schools, or these student will simply
leave. The effect of purely private schooling would be to foster
the creation of myriad segregated schools for students of differing
abilities and different talents.

I think it
is likely, moreover, that schools on the purely free market which
produced contemplative students would out-compete schools which
produced blabbermouths, because contemplative students would out-compete
the blabbermouths on the job market. Employers are typically not
looking for impulsive blabbermouths; instead, they usually seek
to find employees who are careful, disciplined and have excellent
writing skills. I could be wrong. The only way to find out is to
abolish this ridiculously homogeneous, socialized education system,
and allow the schools to compete for students, and compete to create
the best future employees for the job market.

September
13, 2006

Mark R.
Crovelli [send him mail]
is a graduate student in the department of political science at
the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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