Of all the books I have ever read, my favorites are “Atlas Shrugged”, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and the “Scarlet Letter.” I find a lot of good in all of them. For those of you familiar with the first two…you might be surprised that I listed them together because they are, in some respects, diametrically opposed to one another. In one instance, we have Atlas shrugged that portends that preservation of one’s self and the rights to do so can inform society on absolute moral grounds. More specifically, that government and society should let the individual be free to do as he wishes and that the only moral causes in life are those that facilitate that end. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” takes a decidedly more relativist approach to morals and “quality” and explores the interplay between classical and romantic definitions of value. He espouses learning and rational thought but is unwilling to throw out intuition in his attempt to define the good which is not always the truth. Of course, I am one to believe with most of my being that “the truth” and “the good” are one and that the value set with which those are defined can in fact be an absolute. That is, there is a set of morals that is “the truth” without which you will never find “the good” in life. I still like “ZMM” because I think it has a lot to say on how we define the good in life and brings to light places where rational thought is difficult (though never impossible) to utilize. I bring all this up not because I was thinking about either one of these two works when I woke up this morning but rather because of a somewhat convoluted chain of thought that led me here. It starts with the grading system at WPI which is somewhat unique in academia in that students are graded on an A/B/C scale but if they get the equivalent of a D or an F that grade is replaced by an NR, or “No Record.” This essentially (though not entirely) expunges that class from a student’s records and they are allowed to repeat it until they receive a passing grade. The thought process here is that students should be allowed to learn on their own terms without fear of failure. The end results being an institution where excellence is promoted and students may learn without fear or apprehension. My opinion is that this grading scheme is a load of crap. Other think so as well and the faculty will soon be voting on whether to return (after nearly 50 years) to a more standard grading scale. Many of the undergraduates are understandably upset by this idea and are attempting to stage a protest…which reminds me of my time at UMass when a senior administrator for the university voiced the opinion that student protest rarely get a response because the faculty are all fully aware that most of those who they disappoint will be gone in 3-4 years and those that come in new will have never known the old system. Thus the longest discontent that a policy can create is just long enough to graduate those who were disappointed. The constant turnover of students makes faculty accountability to the wishes of the student minority a moot point. I feel that this will likely be the case here as well. Anyways, in response to the proposed changes an undergraduate wrote a treatise on the matter defending the grading scheme as it stands now. Another students made the connection to Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It seems to me that the student was only half right in this case and really missing the boat on modern society and the role of the university. If you’ve read my previous post, “On Academia” then you will be familiar with my feelings on the state of the University in contemporary American society. Unfortunately the ideal of academia has been quite lost for quite a long time and so it this point it serves a very different purpose than for what it was first intended. While I can totally see Pirsig’s view that academia should be a place of learning and an anti-authoritarian utopia (which is strangely not all that opposed to “Atlas” if we replace academia with government…which in some instances are often the same thing); I also fully recognize that we live in a world where that ideal has fallen by the wayside and if we are to maintain rational thought (my guiding principle on all of this), then we must work to both change the system while at the same time maximizing the utility of that which currently stands. In this vein, the university is at its best, a training ground for young men and women. As part of that training, a student requires honest evaluation and examination. While an ideal system would have this be entirely internal to the student…the system is currently held to the external standards of funding agencies and governments, potential employers, and parents (though these really should all be left out in a perfect world). The result is that some form of external verification of training received is demanded and that verification through examinations and the like is a necessary evil of the world as it stands now. For WPI to ignore that is to be short sighted to point of absurdity and while the envisioned themselves as the keepers of the academic flame back in the sixties they have long since fallen into line in most other ways with other institutions of higher learning. And yet, they retain this foolish grading system while simultaneously prolonging and exacerbating the coddling of a generation of young people. Pirsig would not advocate for our current system and instead, would favor no grades at all but only if that meant that there was no accountability to the world outside. The ultimate anti-authoritarian system where it is actually enforced that students will come to learn and learn only. Instead we have an awful in-between world in which the student is held half-accountable and artificially inflated only to be taken into a world which operates on a different playing field. The enter the university feeling privileged to have such a system and leave certainly suffering an immense disservice to learn that the rest of the world plays by more truly egalitarian rules in which failure is punished (unless you can get a government bailout of course) and success is solidified and meaningful. WPI needs to understand that “The Truth” and “The Good” are one in the same and that the separation of these serves no one. Patrick OUT!!!
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