Marks are meaningless

Rigid grade systems, set school hours, and required classes have been with us for ages, but these models may produce more problems for students than solutions. Most of the secondary school system, with exceptions such as Windsor House and the Purple Thistle, calls for order, regulations, and letter grades in order to keep the students standardized and manageable. Alternative education options such as self-education and student-governed schools are becoming increasingly more popular, and with every succesful graduate, more viable.

Learning by crooked crayon...

Take the case of Roger Farr, a Capilano University Professor who took an interesting route in his education. Farr left high school in grade nine, due to his disinterest in school, which resulted in skipping classes and missing assignments. “It basically came down to an ultimatum with my principal,” Farr said. “He told me I could either turn it around or I would have to leave... so I left.” However, his learning path did not stop there; he grew up in a house of intellectuals and so continued to read books around the house and at the library. He worked, learned, and travelled. Farr continued to expand his knowledge base on his own, but eventually, he went back. “I came to Capilano for one semester and enrolled as a mature student, because I’d been out of the high school system for four years, at the age of 19.” His grades in the first semester were so-so, but nevertheless he felt that his own self education had made him ready for post-secondary. “I felt like I was prepared for it really well intellectually. I had read very widely, and I was used to fumbling around in new ideas.”

After two semesters at Capilano, Farr transferred to SFU and got his BA with an Honours in English, and then finished with his Master’s Degree. “I enjoyed school,” Farr said on obtaining his Master’s, “...but after I’d finished my BA I was reluctant to go back.” After graduation, he didn’t work in an academic area, but rather got a job working at a worker’s co-op, Horizon Foods, which is a natural foods distributor. “I took a job there partially because it seemed like it was organized in a way that I would find agreeable.”

As a former drop-out, he valued having alternatives over established standards and was cautious about the burden of academia. Finally, after a professor's encouragement, he decided. “In Grad school, you’re addressed as a future academic, probably because that’s how the system unfolds. They want bright students to carry on with their work - they feel inspired by that,” Farr said. He decided to teach, and eventually, wound up back at Capilano, where he is now an English and Creative Writing professor.

The fact is that traditional education is not for everyone. Many Cap students have taken advantage of the flexible admission requirements and easy transferability of courses to larger institutions like UBC and SFU, and there is no shortage of success stories. An educated person is not easily defined by standardized grading models. Self-education certainly worked for Farr, and there are many who agree that alternative education, whether self-directed or at an alternative school, is better than the widely chosen option of public or private schools. Consider Leo Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer, on the downsides of traditional education: “School justly presents itself to the child’s mind as an establishment where he is taught that which nobody understands; where the teacher sees in his pupils natural enemies, who, out of their own malice and that of their parents, do not wish to learn that which he has learned; and where the pupils, on their side, look upon their teacher as their enemy, who only out of a personal spite compels them to learn such difficult things ... Education is the tendency of one man to make another just like himself.” These words from the 1860’s provide a raw insight into the educational system we see now—a system which is institutionalized and commodified.

The fraying of the traditonal quill...

According to Matt Hern, editor of the book “Deschooling Our Lives”, institutionalized education is a failure and a waste of money. “Schools waste more money than anyone can fully conceive, demand that our kids spend twelve years of their natural youth in often morbidly depressing and oppressive environments, and pour the energies of thousands upon thousands of eager teachers into demeaning and senseless classroom situations.”

Two local alternatives to this are the Purple Thistle and Windsor House. The Purple Thistle is a youth-run arts and activism centre, which was started in 2001 by eight kids who wanted a place that was a mix between a community centre and an artist-run studio. They hold classes as well as full-time, paid training programs. Essentially, their goal is to focus on inspiring creativity and learning in a non-traditional educational setting. The Purple Thistle is run by a group of young people - they determine classes, programs and manage the resources. Some of the classes are sewing, creative writing, and silk-screening, among many others. Sarah Lum, the coordinator and a silk-screening mentor at the Thistle, says that the Thistle is a place for young people to experience organizing and articulating themselves. “The programming that we have is initiated by youth because there are things they want to learn or develop within themselves,” says Lum. Essentially, the Purple Thistle is the alternative option to what Hern is fighting against—capitalist, state-controlled, compulsory education. Kids go to the Purple Thistle because they want to learn—and they want to do it in their own way. They are more concerned about widening their horizons, expanding their interests, and learning from each other than they are about making an “A” grade in a government required course. They gain tangible skills that they can put to use in the industry or career of their choice. “The Thistle benefits youth because they have the basic resources to create their world and develop themselves,” Lum said, “which in turn supports their creative power and confidence.”

The Thistle avoids a huge part of most education systems—grades. For nearly as long as schools have been in session, the question has been asked: Are grades fair, or even necessary? Does a “B” or an “A” on your record really mean anything to anyone other than your professor or you? And should it even mean anything to those two? John Holt, in his book Instead of Education, argues that requiring grades is contributing to a dangerously authoritarian education system: “Education, with its supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind.” He is arguing that allocating a letter grade to a student not only compares them, sometimes unjustly, to other students, but it also puts the teachers and the rulers of the school in total control of a student’s intellect and emotions. If you were genuinely a good writer, but were not able to write within the word limits your teachers gave you and ended up with a “C” grade, how would you then begin to feel about your own talent?

Sarah Lum echoes that point in her ideas about the role of the Purple Thistle. She is very concerned with how traditonal education initiates students into society by submitting their creativity and intelligence to a hierarchy. “The educational system values certain kinds of knowledge over others. I also have problems with students having to "prove" they have learned something by answering questions on a test correctly.”

Holt argues that grades often cause students to doubt their own intelligence and self worth. Grades also have a huge psychological impact on students. According to a study of sixth-grade students published in 1987, the only thing more stressful than grades was the loss of a parent. In 2001, the same study was repeated, and it was found that sixth graders found the stress from grades to be the single most stressful life event, higher than the loss of a parent. Imagine the pressure as students grow up and expectations increase. Even Roger Farr thinks that grades are not always the best measure: “If knowledge can be turned into a number and counted and tallied…then grades are an accurate reflection. But if you have a concept of education as being more organic and complex, then they aren’t at all. They’re definitely unnecessary…there are institutions that don’t use grades and they work really well,” Farr stated.

Take, for example, Evergreen State University in Washington. They don’t use a grading system, but rather, students explore their own interests and the mentor faculty advises on anything from the lab to the library. A portfolio is the result. When they apply to graduate school, they present their portfolio instead of their grade sheets. Grad schools view Evergreen as a respected, if somewhat radical school. However, that piece of paper stating your degree is still necessary to enter the workforce. According to Senator Catherine S. Callbeck, two-thirds of the jobs in the next few years will require a post-secondary education. 

The industry ink...

The problem with free-schools and alternative education is not in the quality of human beings they produce or from the satisfaction of learning in that environment, but from the expectations of industry. The current aim of education is to prepare students for the workforce, and as a result, the workforce informs our curriculum. It's a catch twenty-two... but one that precludes the main role of democratic ecucation, which is to create the type of citizens who are able to govern society and determine the best use of our industry and resource use. As it stands, the current corporatist system is undermining the ideal and making students into consumers, education into commodity.

This isn’t only true for high schools and primary schools. University students in Canada are drowning in huge debts as well. According to Statistics Canada, the average graduate from a bachelor’s degree program owed approximately $20,000 in student debts at the end of 2000, and that amount has continued to increase over the years. Currently, the average student debt is approximately $30,000 in BC. Once more, on a national scale, the student debt overall is more than $13 billion. Huge amounts of money like this leave students questioning if they are truly getting what they are paying for.

Students are no longer attending school because they want to, but simply because they must. The healthy love of learning and self-development is debased by the bottom line. Vinoba Bhave, a famous writer from India, views education as an opportunity to find freedom through learning. “Most people are anxious to complete their education so they can get a salaried job and lead an easy life,” Bhave said, “but this is the wrong way to look at education. Learning has value of its own right…the purpose of learning is freedom, which brings true self-sufficiency.” Freedom comes through knowledge, but it is only valuable if we choose, desire, and thirst for it. 

// Krissi Buscholtz

// andrew schick illustrations

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