April 3, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Sorry, We Have to Defy Capitalism to Install the Most Ethical Grading System

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We are facing an unprecedented dilemma. For the first time in United States history, we are shutting down all our social institutions, ranging from healthcare facilities to education. Within that, there are groups of people who are facing incomprehensible calamities like the death of parents or crippling hunger. Of course, draconian-style, individualistic management is prevalent in the U.S.’s history of dealing with social issues, and the majority of Cornell’s population favors that style. As a result of capitalistic ideals and a characteristically false sense of meritocracy, many faculty want to maintain harsh grades, students want to profit from panicked change and many people are fighting to marginalize students facing intense hardship.

Personally, I do not benefit from any particular grading scheme. I am only speaking on behalf of thousands of students dealing with death, starvation, an acute lack of resources (to the extent that they cannot read this article) and countless other problems marginalized within the conversation. Ultimately, we need an ethical grading system: Universal S/U. If you disagree, there are three possible reasons: You want to try to improve your grades to make up for doing poorly earlier in your academic career, you are an upper-middle or upper-class student (with good grades) who has a near perfect situation at home and sees nothing wrong with the current situation or you want to directly protect the institution of capitalism and the false indoctrination of a merit-based ideology because you are privileged and see value in the system.

Now, moving forward, I need to start by explaining the mindset, fueled by capitalism, that is promoting opposition to this grading policy. Some people truly believe that there is a meritocracy in terms of awarding grades this semester. They believe that students can perform normally, happily and adequately under an academic calamity that has never been seen before, under imminent threats of at least 100,000 deaths and volatile living conditions. I cannot believe that people think that simple distribution of resources is enough — it is the resurgence of that covert-racist mantra that “we have done enough for ungrateful blacks.”

Additionally, we are instilled with the idea that there is legitimacy in the systems that students are attempting to improve their grades for: Admissions to graduate and professional schools. It has been shown in numerous research pieces that these processes are heavily biased. For example, in Julie Posselt’s book Inside Graduate Admissions, she hinted at two elitist metrics, undergraduate institutional prestige and Graduate Record Examination scores, being the prime indicators of graduate school acceptance at numerous top academic departments. This cascades into the extensive research that shows that the standardized test results are skewed by race, sex and numerous other demographic characteristics. Many Cornellians are completely ignoring the fact that we should be using this as an opportunity to tear down systemic prejudice instead of perpetuating it by taking advantage of the situation (through not adopting a S/U grading system for this semester). Most students will take classes that won’t boost their GPA S/U and keep classes that will boost their GPA graded.

Secondly, the idea of trying to make up for some students’ deficient grades by letting others suffer (then competing against them in the same admissions process for graduate schools, jobs or other things that require GPAs) is insensitive and highly unethical.

If you were easily able to accommodate being kicked off-campus and relocated, if your home life and living situation is great, if you do not have any issues accessing technology, internet, food or space at home, then, well, power to you. Your capitalistic framework is optimal, and you have a majority of the factors conducive to academic success. However, for Cornellians not as fortunate, lack of any of the aforementioned privileges could throw off academic performance. Many students are facing a lack of multiple of the above privileges.

Furthermore, for those who have the socioeconomic status to overcome challenges, how do you even know whether or not you will end with a good grade? To assume so is to decide blind, and for many, to assume end goals that are not based on past performance, as indicated by the desperation with which people are scrambling for this opportunistic benefit.  At any rate, it is unlikely that one semester will heavily impact GPA (especially from a statistical viewpoint). People are so profit-oriented, so willing to gain a competitive advantage through the despair of a world-changing virus, that their judgement is completely impaired.

Lastly, we are making one humongous assumption: That this problem will be over by the beginning of next semester. Right now, the U.S. government and public health officials are in complete chaos and denial, and it is possible that we could be dealing with coronavirus well into 2021. We should not be making draconian decisions on grading formats and graduate and professional school acceptances within an environment of such uncertainty. GPA requirements, as well other quantitative application elements, can easily be adjusted or re-evaluated. For those who disagree, historical precedences heavily support this statement. Education evaluations were changed to the detriment of black people in the South during Jim Crow times, during the early 1900s when people wanted to force Jews out of higher education and recently when the faculty senate voted against universal S/U.

Ultimately, people do not think that this is a problem because students who may be facing this issue are a minority and have not succeeded in the capitalistic framework, but that is the whole point! We have been allegedly making societal progress for centuries on issues like race and privilege, and thus many people think all the problems are solved. However, we must realize that this problem lies in the struggles of minorities (be that by race, gender or sexual orientation), struggles that are widely ignored in life’s politics.We need to set an example as a world-class educational institution, and not sacrifice the academic and future success of marginalized populations for the selfish, leisurely benefit of those who seek solely to optimize their grades through optional S/U.

Benjamin Fields is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He is double majoring in Developmental Sociology and Global and Public Health Sciences, and has eight minors. Upon graduation he will be attending one of the following PhD programs in Sociology: UC Berkeley, UCLA, UT Austin and UChicago. and  Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.