Arrington: Quantifying What it Means to Be Human

Grades are an inaccurate and dehumanizing measure of human value.

by Katherine Arrington | 2/10/22 4:00am

There are benchmarks for everything now. When you are young, these benchmarks measure when you learn to walk, talk and read to determine whether you are on track in your development. As you grow older, people begin to measure not merely what you are able to do but how well you do it. In grade school, there are standardized tests and percentile calculations, then high school brings a combination of GPA, ACT and SAT. Even in college, it does not stop. We are constantly graded and assessed, our performance mapped and recorded.

In theory, measures such as grades are supposed to give us insight into how much students are learning and the progress they are making. They compare people to a certain ideal standard, providing information on them so that parents, teachers, the people themselves and employers or colleges can make decisions about what is best for individuals.

The fact is, however, that although grades are presented as objective measures of intelligence and capability, they are in actuality far from it. They map people’s abilities, quantifying them in categories such as reading or math, that at some point we as a society decided were important. The ability to read, do math and practice other such skills are deemed crucial for the ideal human to be able to perform and perform well. Our value as human beings thus is alienated from who we actually are and put into classifications of our abilities.

Furthermore, these scores pretend as though they present every person with equal opportunity, as if they are not encumbered by bias. Yet they actually measure a complicated amalgamation of natural talent and work ethic, which are both affected by the degree of access to certain resources that we receive from the point of our birth and by our family circumstances and home environments. If one were to decide that earning good grades was not their priority due to the fact that they had more pressing concerns — such as working a job, helping out at home or taking on a creative project — our system would deem them unintelligent and as possessing a poor work ethic. In reality, they may be quite the opposite, but be making the choice to apply these attributes in other arenas.

All these scores we use are then geared towards one type of ideal human being that employers, and following that, society, value: someone who is talented academically and cares about achieving the recognition of employers and authority figures, thus perpetuating the cycle. We reach the point where our society actively values humans by how much they play into our existing economic and social systems.

Yet how can we have allowed such an ideal into our society? These notions — that there is an “ideal human,” academic success is the only way to a superior life and people’s full intelligence and potential and very humanness can be ranked — should be appalling.

I do not believe that our value as humans resides in how well we perform on these made-up scales of measurement. Humanity is about exploring this world we have been given, about learning and discovering new things, about creating art and music, about laughing and celebrating with one another, about having experiences and making memories and dreaming of the future. How could we ever measure any of that?

But we have all bought into this system, myself included. We competed at our high schools in order to get good enough GPAs and test scores for us to get into Dartmouth, and now that we are here, we continue to compete with one another. Even though it may sometimes be subtle, nearly all of us nonetheless covertly seek to achieve grades above the medians and, ultimately, wield these grades to contend for competitive careers.

Grades have become so ingrained into our academic systems — and to our culture as a society at large — that I doubt that they will be abolished at any point in the near future. Yet, it is vital we recognize that these rigid numbers we are applying to sentient beings are not objective measurements of our humanity and character. They are artificial, subjective and shaped by society’s conceptions of what the individual should work towards. As the qualitative continues to be quantified, we must remember that our value as human beings cannot and should not be measured merely by how well we do on a test, but by the type of person that we are.

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