Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

July 21, 2009

Why report cards represent everything that is wrong with the world today

Imagine that one day, your child comes home from school and announces that she received an A on her final exams.  In fact, she tells you, everybody got an A.  How would you feel?  Shocked?  Surprised?  Perhaps you’d feel that the grade she’d gotten was meaningless.  You might possibly get angry at the teachers for shirking their duty.  Maybe you wouldn’t be able to feel as proud of your child.

Of all the thoughts and emotions that might go through your head,  I bet happiness that the No Child Left Behind Act finally worked and all children would now be equally knowledgeable and skilled was not one of them.  Which should tell you something about the true purpose of grades.

This story was illustrated by Denis Rancourt, AKA the Anarchist Professor, who was (somewhat) recently spotlighted on Chris Guillebeau’s inspiring blog, The Art of Nonconformity.  He gave every student in his class an A+ and encouraged them challenge the grading system and syllabus of their other classes, and to take back their power from their professors.  Subsequently, the university had him arrested.  (For more stories of Schools severely overreacting when their system is threatened, read Chapter 10 of John Taylor Gatto’s eye-opening book, Weapons of Mass Instruction.)

I especially found the commentors’ reactions to Professor Rancourt’s actions very interesting.  It dovetails nicely with John Taylor Gatto’s observation of the fundamental hypocrisy of schools: that even though they claim their goal is to get students to be at the same level and give them all an equal chance at a great future, people FREAK OUT if all the students in a class get A’s.  This is because an ‘A’ grade has no independent value.  It won’t put dinner on the table, that’s for sure.  Letter grades only function as signifiers of rank.  And with ranks, for one person to be on top, someone else has to come below.  To paraphrase him, parents tend to think, “My child’s ‘A’ doesn’t mean anything if everyone in the class gets ‘A’s.”  Why do we raise our children to expect that they cannot all be great?  Perhaps this is one of the seedlings that encourages us to live from mindsets of scarcity instead of abundance.  We believe that there’s only a limited supply of excellence (or: ‘A+’s)  to go around.

Mr. Gatto often uses the phrase, “We grade children like vegetables.”  Meaning, some are of better quality than others.  Well, that’s just ridiculous.  Even the idea that there is an objective standard of quality is laughable.  Do you remember the old story about the guru asking the student to go out and find the perfect stick?  It begs the question: what does the perfect stick look like?  The answer depends on how you plan to use it.  The perfect stick for roasting marshmallows will be different from the perfect fire-fueling stick will be different from the perfect playing-fetch-with-the-dog stick. In this light, how can we claim that the A students are the smartest and hardest-working children?  What about the F students who realize that pushing papers for gold stars is a waste of time, so they choose to devote their intelligence and hard work to a project of their own choosing?  Admittedly, these are few and far between in our current culture.  But bear in mind that the first American woman to circumnavigate the globe solo began her journey as a high school dropout at age 18.

As it goes, some children will be better at playing the game of school than others.  I happened to be one of them.  But does that mean that I have had more success in my life than some of my classmates who received lower grades?  Not at all!  For example, being very good at following instructions and doing what I am told make me an excellent employee (when much of the research shows that being an entrepreneur and business owner can put you in a far more powerful and financially secure position).  My addiction to the approval of my superiors ensured that I didn’t try anything unless I was sure I could accomplish it, which meant that for most of my working life I limited myself to applying for minimum-wage retail jobs.  (This was before I realized that I could parlay my lack of visible piercings and/or tattoos into a more “professional” office position, for much higher pay.)  I have a good friend who, when we were in school together, received lower grades than I did, and has always admired how well I did in French class.  But he has already made his first million as an entrepreneur, and is well on his way to his second (Check out his latest project: deep sea diving!), while I was working long hours in the low-pay, dead-end (yet character building!) service industry.  Lucky for me life isn’t a contest!

But school is.  And impressionable young children are told every day that the rest of their lives will be determined by how they perform in this contest.  AND there can only be a few winners.  I’m sure many of us have had the experience of being put on a certain “track” for different subjects in school.  (I know I have!  My strength was more in letters than numbers, as you can see.)  Once you’re put on the “dumb math” track, you are virtually guaranteed to start falling farther and farther behind other students.  You will never know as much about math as they know, and you will never be as good at it.  So you tell yourself, “There’s no point in pushing harder.  This is where they told me I belong.”  And you go through the rest of your school career only learning what they decide to teach you.  (Until you graduate, whereupon you never have to think about trigonometry again.  But they don’t tell you that when you’re in class, now, do they?)

I can already anticipate people’s reactions of, “Well, this whole each-child-is-special-in-his-or-her-own-way thing SOUNDS nice, but what it mainly results in is little terrors named Marshwillow running around with their underpants on their heads, shrieking whilst creating a chocolate-pudding ‘masterpiece’ on somebody else’s white couch, while their parents sit exclaiming, ‘Isn’t s/he UNIQUE?  Ah, the Magic of Childhood!’ ”

I certainly don’t want that either.  But hear me out when I say: Lack of school is not lack of discipline.  There are many, many unschooling/deschooling/homeschooling families that require their children to do chores that are necessary to maintain a household.  What they DON’T require is for their children to do arbitrary paperwork based solely on their chronological age.  Children shouldn’t be sorted and judged based on their submission to such an absurd system.  In my (capitalist-influenced) opinion, only the marketplace has real power to judge the value of our work.  If people are not interested in our product or service, they vote with their dollars and the business fails, or we fail to find a job, and we are forced to try something new so that we do not starve.  However, many people associate failure in the marketplace with failure as a human being, in general.  I wonder if that has something to do with compulsory schooling, where we are vilified as lazy and stupid if we receive a ‘failing’ grade.  Or perhaps it is just a natural consequence of evolution: we tend to act out of fear, rather than courage, because in the olden days, the guy who didn’t cower and run from a woolly mammoth generally got trampled to death.  But we live in a far more sanitized world, so perhaps it’s time for us to teach our children a different way.  Instead of trying to force them to develop as a team of governmental “experts” has dictated they should develop (based on their age group, natch), perhaps we should let them find their own path.



  1. Hi Reluctant Teacher,

    I want to send more radical food for thought your way by suggesting that you check out the web site with all the links to blogs, articles, letters, videos… about my struggles in radical pedagogy.


    Comment by Denis Rancourt — July 21, 2009 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

    • Beat you to it Denis, all the readers of this blog already know that you are really Allan Rock!

      Comment by Michael — July 22, 2009 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  2. You’ve been completely taken in by Denis Rancourt. He has used his dismissal to manipulate the activist community for his own bizarre and deceptive aims. If you want to get the facts about this case, good rockourt.

    Otherwise, great article.

    Comment by Michael — July 22, 2009 @ 12:41 am | Reply

  3. Blog looks awesome!!

    Comment by Brian A. Witkin — August 6, 2009 @ 6:07 pm | Reply

    • Aw, thanks!

      Comment by christinag503 — August 6, 2009 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

  4. […] unpleasant things; degrees and credentials are the only tickets to success; if we don’t get good grades, it’s because we aren’t trying hard enough.  You know what?  I call […]

    Pingback by You heard it here first: I am Deeply Unqualified to talk about this stuff « Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher — January 5, 2010 @ 8:03 am | Reply

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