David Brooks will never get it: After getting Trump and GOP wrong, now he has a new crusade

After a mea culpa for the entire primary season, Brooks takes aim at new enemy. It is, yes, the grade point average

By Aaron Barlow
Published May 10, 2016 2:52PM (EDT)

In his 1936 essay “The Crack Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the ‘impossible,’ come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both.”

The immature philosophy of his youth, of course, is that of today’s Ayn Rand-ian elite and the writers who excuse them, people like Richard Florida, Charles Murray and, of course, David Brooks.

What struck me as odd, though, in reading Brooks’ column today titled “Putting Grit in Its Place,” is that he doesn’t quote in it the first part of the passage, the bit about holding opposing ideas at once. Now, to give Brooks his due, his ideas do seem to be evolving. Perhaps this essay is a first step toward repudiation of his support for Common Core, but I think something else is going on. In criticizing grade point averages (of all things), Brooks isn’t going after standardization and mindless quantification but is continuing the attack on teachers that Common Core represents.

Continuing his elitist stratification, Brooks claims, “Creative people are good at asking new questions, but the G.P.A. rewards those who can answer other people’s questions.” He’s right, but the implication of the way he frames it is that, if you can sift the ‘creative people’ out from the rest, you can justify two types of education—which is what has been happening: Assessment-driven education is for the public schools; the elite private schools avoid it.

He’s also completely wrong, arguing that “the G.P.A. is the mother of all extrinsic motivations.” Yes, G.P.A. often becomes a motivator, but no more so than the SAT or ACT exams or other standardized tests. G.P.A., in fact, has an aspect useful beyond standardized tests: it’s the culmination of a variety of assessment by a diverse group of teachers. If a student can impress people as varied as those responsible for the classrooms in any school, they can probably handle more surprising situations than Brooks gives them credit for.

Now, as a teacher, I do try to de-emphasize grades. I don’t give a damn about ‘grade inflation’ or ‘grading on the curve.’ I reward my students for diligence, attempt and accomplishment. As an advisor, I look at each student’s G.P.A., talk to them to get to know them, and suggest a course of action taking both their grades and their personality into account. I certainly recognize the limitations of grades, but have also learned their uses. I attended an ungraded school for two years when I was a kid and taught in two when a high-school teacher. The paragraph-long evaluations were ungainly and of little use after the fact; it was hard to detect a pattern from them. On the other hand, I had a graduate student once complain about getting a B+, saying he had never gotten less than an A and deserved to keep that average.

I understand full well the desire to keep a distance from the widespread fascination with G.P.A. That, I believe, however, is not really Brooks’ point. He argues, rather strangely, that desire (“longing,” as he calls it) precedes self-discipline and that neither, therefore, can be taught. This simplistic model leads him to suppose that if one “were designing a school to help students find their own clear end,” one would “de-emphasize the G.P.A. mentality, which puts a tether on passionate interests and substitutes other people’s longings for the student’s own.”

As one who spends his days trying to encourage students to discover and explore their own ‘passionate interests,’ I see grades as one of the least pernicious forces limiting educational possibilities. They are, after all, subject to the judgements of individual teachers, each one representing something different from each of the others. In the aggregate, then, they can actually mean something. On the other hand, standardized assessment tools, including those inherent in the Common Core Brooks loves so well, the new and faddish Student Learning Outcomes, and all the rest depend solely on quantification, leaving individual judgement out of the mix.

Brooks has one of two goals: Either he is trying to remove evaluation by individual teachers from education or he is moving toward a new position of rejecting Common Core. It is difficult to say, from this one column, which. However, I can guess: He writes that “the G.P.A. system encourages students to be deferential and risk averse, giving their teachers what they want.” The implied disparagement of the teaching profession hints to me that it is not really the G.P.A. Brooks wants to get rid of, but teachers and their ability to judge.

Aaron Barlow

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