Grades Are Capitalism in Action. Let’s Get Them Out of Our Schools.
The capitalist economic system has major failures. It generates extreme, socially divisive inequalities of wealth and income. It consistently fails to achieve full employment. Many of its jobs are boring, dangerous and/or mind-numbing. Every four to seven years, it suffers a mysterious downdraft in which millions of people lose jobs and incomes, businesses collapse, falling tax revenues undermine public services, and so on. If these failures were widely perceived as the inherent failures of the capitalist system, the desirability and thus sustainability of capitalism itself might vanish.
How, then, has capitalism survived? Its persistence can best be explained in terms of ideology. The system produces and disseminates interpretations of its failures that blame these problems not on capitalism itself, but on other altogether different “causes.” Institutions have developed mechanisms to anchor such interpretations widely and deeply in the popular consciousness.
One key example is the concept of “meritocracy.” Schools are a key institution that teaches and practices meritocracy via the mechanism of grading. From primary school through the completion of my doctorate, I suffered the imposition of grades (A, B, C, etc.). Since becoming a professor, I have constantly been required to assign grades to my students for matters such as papers, exams and class performance.
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Grading takes up much of my time that could be better spent on teaching or otherwise directly interacting with students. Meanwhile, grading has little educational payoff for students. It disrespects them as thinking people. And finally, it chiefly serves employers — but often in ways that are not much good for them either. In short, grading remains an immensely wasteful, ineffective and largely negative aspect of education at all levels: primary education, secondary education and higher education.
Let’s start from the teacher’s perspective as grader. When I read a paper or exam, I can see when a student presents a reasonable version of what I intended in my lectures or what I found worthwhile in the assigned readings. But of course, I cannot be sure whether the student is simply demonstrating their short-term memory and repeating whatever I stressed in class, or whether the student has genuinely understood — in the sense of grasping and internalizing — key points, as part of the student’s own intellectual formation. Without much more time and interaction with the individual student than schools enable or allow in 99 percent of cases, I cannot know which it is when I assign a grade.
When I see that a student has not understood the concepts that were taught, the possibilities become more numerous. Did the student understand the material differently from me in ways not reducible to matters of right and wrong? After all, every piece of verbal or written material is subject to perfectly reasonable multiple interpretations. Education is not well served by insisting on one answer as right and alternatives as wrong. Such insistence is more like indoctrination than education; it undermines creative, critical thinking. Grading has little educational payoff for students. It chiefly serves employers.
Alternately, did the student’s lack of understanding reflect poor teaching more than poor learning? Education in schools is, after all, a relationship between people: a relationship to which both persons contribute. Grades reflect and represent the power of one side in that relationship over the other. Grades students get from teachers affect their intellectual development, their school and work careers, and major dimensions of their self-esteem. Most students never assign grades to their teachers. The few that can know full well how much less power their grading of teachers wields than the grades imposed on them by teachers. Moreover, teachers and students disagree over their relative responsibilities for “poor performances” by either. I was present in countless faculty meetings where teachers defensively blamed students entirely for the poor grades they “had achieved” (i.e., teachers had given them).
Should teachers have the compensated time to carefully read, listen to, or watch multiple presentations and responses by each student? Should teachers have the compensated time to explain to each student how they have approached and evaluated their work? Would not education be best achieved if students and teachers together were able to discuss, compare and debate their respective interpretations of questions, answers, issues and analyses? If all that were done — a very rare scenario in the U.S. educational system today — why also assign a grade? It would add little of substance.
Today’s economic system precludes teachers engaging so carefully, repeatedly and thoroughly with students. Capitalism’s enterprise organization — a small minority of employers (owners and their top executives) directing and controlling a large majority of employees — is replicated in private and public educational institutions. That organization and its financial constraints combine to preclude the interactions among teachers and students that real education requires. Beyond docile acceptance of the second-rate education they can offer, most schools shy away from efforts to hold the system responsible for fear of antagonizing university donors or officials. Education in schools is a relationship between people: Grades reflect and represent the power of one side in that relationship over the other.
While capitalism’s imposed limits help explain the practice of grading, they do not excuse it. It is a very poor substitute for far superior educational practices thereby foregone.
Grading is not only a mechanism designed to save money spent on “education.” Grades also function as a major foundation and support for the meritocracy. The merit ideology functions as a crucial defense mechanism for capitalism given its failures. The U.S. idea of meritocracy asserts that one can quantitatively rank individuals’ qualitative capacities. Each individual’s work skills, production capabilities, contributions to output — as well as their intelligence, discipline, social skills, and much more — can be ranked. This framework holds that there are some individuals who best or most possess such qualities; some who possess the worst or least of them; and many who occupy positions between those two quantitative extremes.
Within the framework of meritocratic ideology, employers seek to hire the “best” employee and are willing to pay such individual workers more than they pay workers with “less” merit (ranked lower on some scale of productivity). In meritocratic logic, those offered no jobs can only blame themselves: They must assume they have too little merit. Workers learn in school to seek to accumulate merit and achieve higher rankings along the scales that count for employers. Coalitions of educators and employers have inserted the educational system into this merit system as an important place to acquire and accumulate merit that employers will recognize and reward. Better jobs and rising pay reward rising merit acquired through more education as well as “on-the-job” training. Meritocracy redirects the blame for capitalism’s failures onto its victims.
Schools not only enable the consumers of education to acquire and accumulate merit; their operations also exemplify the merit system they support. Harvard University conveys more merit, per credit, than Kentucky State University. Schools that signal more merit can charge students more money. Among schools, within each school, and within each classroom, merit rules.
Meritocracy and the educational system’s key place within it are important because capitalism’s survival depends on them. The merit system organizes how individual employees interpret the unemployment they suffer, the job they hate, the wage or salary they find so insufficient, the creativity their job stifles, and so on. It starts as schools train individuals to accept the grades assigned to them as measures of individual academic merit. That prepares them to accept their jobs and incomes as, likewise, measures of their individual productive merit. Under this framework, unequal grades, jobs and income can all be seen as appropriate and fair: Rewards are supposedly proportional to one’s individual merit.
This paradigm leaves little room for any systemic criticism. Inadequate educations are not blamed on an inadequate educational system unable or unwilling to fund high-quality mass schooling. Unemployment, bad jobs and insufficient incomes are not blamed on the capitalist economic system. Had they been so blamed, both systems could well have come under criticism and opposition and died off long ago.
Meritocracy redirects the blame for capitalism’s failures onto its victims. Schools teach meritocracy, and grading is the method.
Top US admiral bristles at criticism of ‘woke’ military: ‘We are not weak’
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, rebuffed pointed interrogations by GOP lawmakers who grilled him over his decision to recommend sailors read a book deemed by some conservatives as anti-American.
The U.S. Navy’s top admiral also defended moves to address and root out racism and extremism in the forces as well as its efforts to bolster inclusion and diversity, which have prompted criticism from some conservatives and Republican lawmakers.
“Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked Gilday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, referring to a passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which argues capitalism and racism are interlinked.
Banks continued to interrogate the admiral over specific quotes from Kendi’s book, which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller in 2020, and statements he had made elsewhere in the past.
Visibly distraught, Gilday fired back:
“I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” he said. “This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy, as weak, as woke.”
He added that sailors had spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits — the longest deployments the Navy has done, he said.
“We are not weak. We are strong,” Gilday said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also challenged the admiral by citing specific quotes from the book and asked him how those ideas laid out by Kendi would further advance or improve the Navy’s power.
Gilday responded by arguing the importance of transparency and open dialogue about racism.
“There is racism in the Navy just as there is racism in our country, and the way we are going to get out of it is by being honest and not to sweep it under the rug,” he expounded, adding that he does not agree with everything the author says in the book.
The key point however, he said, is for sailors “to be able to think critically.”
The exchange was the latest in vociferous complaints from some conservative leaders and lawmakers who suggest the armed forces are becoming a pawn for the country’s culture wars and “wokeness” ideology, as the military takes steps to address issues of racial inclusion, extremism, racism and white supremacy.
And only last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Kendi’s book, which Cotton said promoted “critical race theories” at a different Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.
Days earlier, Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — two combat veterans — launched a “whistleblowers” online platform to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.
“Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said in a tweet.
Also in February, Austin instructed a one-day stand-down across the Defense Department pausing regular activities to address extremism and white nationalism in the ranks — an issue Austin declared as a priority after a number of rioters at the U.S. Capitol in January were found to have military backgrounds.
The stand down completed in April was an effort to better understand the scope of the problem of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a briefing then.
Earlier, Austin had revoked a ban on diversity training for the military.
More recently, in May, a U.S. Army animated ad focused on soldier diversity — featuring the real story of a soldier who enlisted after being raised by two mothers in California — drew criticism and political backlash from some conservative lawmakers.
“Holy crap,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . . .”
Cruz was referring to a TikTok video that compared the U.S. Army ad with a Russia campaign that showed buff soldiers doing push-ups and leaping out of airplanes, adding that the contrast made the American soldiers “into pansies.”
The confrontation Tuesday is also the latest in reproaches by Rep. Banks, who is a Naval Reserve officer, and other GOP members over Gilday’s recommendation to include Kendi’s book in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.
In February, Banks sent a letter to Gilday arguing that the views promoted in the book are “explicitly anti-American” and demanded Gilday explain the Navy’s decision to include it on the reading list or remove it.
Gilday responded to Banks in a letter obtained by Fox News saying that the book was included on the list because “it evokes the author’s own personal journey in understanding barriers to true inclusion, the deep nuances of racism and racial inequalities.”
Lamborn and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, D-Mo., also wrote a letter to the admiral to convey their concern about the inclusion of Kendi’s book as well as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Jason Pierceson’s “Sexual Minorities and Politics.”
The GOP lawmakers argued the books “reinforce a view that America is a confederation of identity categories of the oppressed and their oppressors rather than a common homeland of individual citizens who are united by common purposes,“ Lamborn and Hartzler wrote, according to Fox News.
Looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021
Our understanding of events refines with time. New developments reframe the issues, and prompt reassessment of the solutions applied, their design and outcomes. What does looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021 tell us?
For three decades, India celebrated and criticised the 1991 reforms. The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout. The reforms, they insist, were ‘home-grown’. In the years leading up to 1991, technocrats in government had been thinking and writing about how India’s economic policies had been blocking the country’s rise to potential and the structural changes needed. If the broad range of reforms—including tearing down the industrial license permit raj, an exchange rate correction, and liberalising foreign direct investment and trade policies—could be launched within a matter of days of a new government joining office, they argue, it is because the blueprints were ready, waiting for the go-ahead from the political leadership.
The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout.
At least two well-regarded technocrats that were important in the 1991 reforms disagree—publicly and in off-the-record conversations. In a media interview last month, one of them, the economic adviser in the reforms team, Dr Ashok Desai, suggested that if there were any reformers in government before the IMF “forced” India to liberalise in 1991, “they hid themselves very well”. According to him, after the BOP crisis was resolved, finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned “dead against reforms”.
The multiple versions of the reforms story make it difficult to separate fact from romance. It cannot be disputed, though, that the 1991 BOP crisis was a turning point for the economy. India had tided over BOP crises earlier with loans from the IMF, repaid them prematurely, and avoided going through with the bailout’s conditionalities. 1991 was singularly different because India was on the brink of default, which is likely to have forced politicians to set politics aside and listen to technocrats. Any default on external obligations would have meant hurting India’s credibility grievously and an inescapable sense of national shame. The government probably took the view that there was no choice other than to take corrective steps. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao named Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been a technocrat in government and was well regarded in global policy circles, as his finance minister. Dr Singh clearly had the Prime Minister’s, his party’s and the IMF’s trust. Records irrefutably show that the Congress party’s acceptance of the reversals in the interventionist economic policies of the first four post-Independence decades was not secured by the Prime Minister. He had delegated the task of tackling doubts and resistance within the party to his ministers, in particular, the finance minister and the commerce minister, and an aide in his office. The finance minister defended the reforms on the floor of the house in Parliament.
Taxpayer-funded NPR mocks ‘CaPitAliSm,’ prompting calls to ‘defund’ media outlet
National Public Radio (NPR) ignited a social media firestorm Thursday night over a tweet that appears to mock capitalism, despite taxpayer dollars accounting for much of the organization’s annual budget.
The outlet posted a story titled “And Now, Crocs With Stiletto Heels” that explores a curious new collaboration between luxury fashion brand Balenciaga and Crocs, the rubber slipper company responsible for fashion faux pas among the millions of comfort-clinging owners nationwide.
The caption accompanying the article, which was written in both uppercase and lowercase letters, appears to mock the collaboration: “CaPitAliSm bReEds InNovAtiOn,” it reads.
The tweet’s language sparked outrage on social media, with figures like conservative Tim Young calling out the irony in NPR’s three-word post.
“You wouldn’t exist without capitalism, clown who is tweeting on behalf of NPR,” he wrote.
“Job at public news station wouldn’t exist wo capitalism,” another user echoed. “Are you guys ok?”
“Our tax money shouldn’t pay for this,” one person expressed.
“It’s still a hell of a lot better than communism at breeding innovation, even if some of the products are silly,” one woman fired back.