At hand we have a passionate editorial in Truthout, a left-wing site, written by Richard D. Wolff, described by Wikipedia as ” an American Marxian economist, known for his work on economic methodology and class analysis. He is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York. Wolff has also taught economics at Yale University, City University of New York, University of Utah, University of Paris I (Sorbonne), and The Brecht Forum in New York City.”
Click on the screenshot to read his lucubrations.
Now four days ago I wrote about Bret Stephens’s thesis that a lot of the student unrest on American campuses comes as a revolt against the meritocracy, which, claims Stephens, is inimical to a “radical egalitarianism” that to many is the basis for social justice. In his piece, Wolff argues that grading is not only an unwanted part of a capitalistic meritocracy, and is inimical to education itself, but is also used to buttress capitalism, keeping people ordered and in their place.
I will let you read his argument for yourself. My own take on grading is that it’s imperfect, slotting students into one of five to a dozen categories, but it’s not useless. (In my grad courses, where I wasn’t required to give grades, everyone got a “pass”—a “P”—unless they required a grade, in which case I gave them a written assignment (my grad courses were all discussion and reading courses). As I recall, some colleges (Reed College may be one of them) don’t give grades, but provide written evaluations for each student. That would be ideal, though it seems hard for grad schools or employers to use such evaluations since there’s nothing to compare. And that brings up the issue of what grades are for.
Wolff sees grades as of no benefit to students, but only to employers or graduate schools. He’s largely right, I think, though grades are also a way of self-evaluation, letting you know that you’re not performing up to snuff. A lot of students in elite colleges haven’t ever had to compete with a huge number of equally talented students, and a low grade may be a sign that you’re not working hard enough.
Yes, grades are imperfect evaluations, but I see no alternative to some form of evaluation. But I reject the idea that they’re deliberately used to prop up capitalism, a system that, says Wolff, is rotten to the core, and almost would collapse without grades and the attendant meritocracy they foster. For example:
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.
Presumably Wolff wants a purely socialistic state, but those have always failed, largely because there’s a lack of incentive. Mixed systems, such as those in Scandinavia and, in fact, in much of Europe, are more successful. Even the U.S., with its Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits, is a bit socialistic. But Wolff doesn’t seem to favor that system.
Wolff also raises other problems with grades besides their use as a prop of a failing capitalism. They take excessive time for professors (but not as much time as written evaluations!); a low grade could be the fault of a poor teacher rather than a poor student; grading could measure memorization rather than learning; and students could have not a wrong understanding, but a different understanding. In fact, Wolff shades a bit into postmodernism when he says stuff like this:
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.
Let a hundred truths blossom! Sometimes, at least in science, one answer is right, and so you can use multiple-choice questions. (I almost never used them; even in large classes I tried to give mostly short essay questions involving “thought.”
What bothers me most about Wolff’s article is that he seems completely opposed to even the idea of a meritocracy. He suggests that any ranking of people is inimical to the socialist society he wants. Yet how can you hire anybody, or achieve excellence, unless you have a way of ranking people? Granted, you can modify a pure meritocracy by adopting other goals (“diversity and inclusion” is the main one in universities), but no college will accept students without some way to rank them. What kind of society can we have if we can’t evaluate people’s skills relative to each other? Yet it seems that’s what Wolff wants:
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 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.
. . . Meritocracy redirects the blame for capitalism’s failures onto its victims. Schools teach meritocracy, and grading is the method.
But I ask the sweating professor: “What is the alternative?” Do we not rank people at all? And if you want that, what are the implications for society?
Here’s the man himself:
70 thoughts on “Marxist prof demands an end to grading, a meritocratic ranking that props up a rotten capitalism”
Would he want to go and see a doctor who had not got good grades in exams?
I’ve always considered that I am a great brain surgeon. Admittedly I have never tried, but why knuckle under to the demands of meritocracy for validation?
And a thought:
I’d be interested to know the outcome of grading of the same student by multiple teachers – this must have been tried?
its been tried often to improve reliability. grading mulitiple work samples yields more reliable scores but it is also costly.
I give the man a B.
Karl Marx was awarded his PhD from the University of Jena in 1841. I doubt if he would have approved of Dr. Wolff’s proposal.
If grades were eliminated, some other way of ranking or evaluating merit would evolve. The ultimate “problem” here probably isn’t capitalism; it’s valuing human progress. It seems to me that a society in which relative merit and rewards were absent would be one in which the status quo prevailed. You’re “good enough;” your job is “good enough;” your life is “ good enough.” Why change?
One of the values inherent in meritocracy would be the idea that one can and should strive to be better. Not everyone can, of course. But I’m not sure the cure for that would be an improvement. Figuring it out would require ranking ideas on their merit.
On the face of it, socialism sounds wonderful.
Unfortunately, I think (for whatever it is worth — I am no economist, not by a long shot) that it seems to have a fatal flaw.
In order to function well, it requires the vast majority (say, 90%) of a socialist society’s population to have a major level of entrenched idealism towards other people.
People different from themselves, people who are not their friends or members of their families, people they just plain do not like or actively despise for whatever reason or reasons…
When has this ever been the fundamental characteristic of any eartly societies (other than some small groups) in any location or during any historical period?
The question, I fear, answers itself.
So perhaps we are stuck with capitalism, basically rapacious but at least appropriately regulated, as it surely is not in the “USA”.
My two cents, or maybe less…
Whether trump has “emboldened” White supremacists in their rhetoric is perhaps debatable. But I wish whomever emboldened the hardcore reds in their rhetoric had not done so.
This one attended Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. So he has to be familiar with the history of Marxist revolutions. Reading a little of his writings linked from his website, he appears to be a “not real Marxism/ I am sure it will work next time” kind of person.
I have read a Soviet analysis of the pathology of the people recruited to be true believers in the west, but I would love to read a modern, objective analysis of such people.
“Presumably Wolff wants a purely socialistic state, but those have always failed, largely because there’s a lack of incentive.”
They failed because of a lack of incentive? What evidence have you for this conclusion? It seems more clearly that they failed because of the psychopathic dictators that ruled them. Not because people were not willing (incentivized) to work for the common good.
I don’t think Wolf’s aversion to meritocracy means people who do poorly in medical school get to be doctors too. It means people who do well in medical school and become doctors do not merit a better lifestyle and more money than someone not so intellectually blessed.
That’s pretty much how I see it too.
Ways of differentiating pay rates, supposedly on merit are also ways of justifying low pay rates.
Why physical work is less worthy than brain work is another rationale to keep pay down.
We need some sorts of evaluations but it is an interesting argument.
I vaguely remember Robert Pirsig discussing grading in in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ but I can’t remember what and why.
I liked being graded, but I went to Uni out of interest and seeking knowledge, not to get a job.
I had a good manual labor job.
Clearly, the guy’s never been working class in need of some indication that he can compete with the privileged.
The elephant in the room is that there a genetic differences between individuals and larger populations that affects intelligence.
The best way to achieve an egalitarian utopia is just to kill those successful devils, whether Jews in Europe, people wearing glasses in Cambodia or Indians in Africa.
Give Wolff some credit, he is not proposing genocide.
In a way this is the ultimate swipe at discrimination. How dare teachers differentiate between students? How dare employers? In general, discrimination is used in its perjorative sense to mean differentiation between people except as based on merit. Now there should be no distinctions between people. It would be quite a famine.
It might be worth recollecting that Professor Wolff used to write regularly for Monthly Review, a magazine specializing in sophisticated apologetics for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Prof. Wolff’s audience no doubt imagines that Socialism (such as formerly found in the USSR, east Germany, and other such paradises) never subjected anybody to “ranking”, and did not have any jobs which were “boring, dangerous and/or mind-numbing”. In fact, Prof. Wolff’s
current acolytes, most of whom were born yesterday, have only the haziest idea of these societies, and have the impression that they all disappeared for reasons that are both entirely mysterious and the fault of the imperialist West.
“Many of its jobs are boring, dangerous and/or mind-numbing.”
So where do these jobs go under socialism?
There must be a book I should buy and read./
In a true spirit of Levelling, everyone’s job becomes boring, dangerous, and/or mind-numbing, so there is no discontent based on envy.
The solution is found in an old Soviet joke – we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.
I’m looking forward to Woolf’s forthcoming op-ed, tentatively titled, ‘Rankings are Capitalism in Action. Let’s Get Them out of our Sports.”
Grades and merit have an enormous motivational power. If all are equal, then why even try?
As if everyone will be qualified for any job.
I have seen prof. Wolff many times on You Tube when I watch political lectures from time to time.
Many of them are from “RT”.
I honestly don’t know much about RT, I see Larry King videos there also.
Jerry, what is your opinion on “RT”? Is it something to “delete” or “favorite”?
Is it like the Templeton Foundation for Russia??
I know nothing about them.
RT is fairly sophisticated Russian State propaganda, they mix in straight factual reporting to make the BS (or FSB in this case hehe) seem more believable.
Like Fox without the hate.
RT (Russia Today) is like Pravda in the former Soviet Union. It is a Russian news (i.e., propaganda) source. It is harmless to read as long as you take the “news” from where it comes.
Thanks. (then I find it strange to see of all people, Larry King there, why is he doing that?? ——-very odd).
The most prominent recent example of radical egalitarianism… wasn’t that the Red Guard?
Hereafter, the person who is willing to kick up the most fuss gets the best… marks?
Or, the best Marx gets the best marks.
WorkersStudents of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chainsmeritocracy (and maybe your slot in grad school).”
Or how ’bout we try the Manifesto‘s first line:
“There is a spectre haunting
Europeacademia — the spectre of communismradical egalitarianism.”
I dunno, doesn’t have quite the same ring as Marx & Engels’s original, you ask me.
Grades have three functions: 1. Ranking students. 2.Giving students incentives to learn. 3. Providing feedback to students about how well they have mastered the material.
You can abolish grades, but something else has to take their place to address these 3 needs. If you can’t spell out how an alternative would work, you are not helping. You are just venting.
Wolff gets a failing grade from me.
Exactly what I thought when in the ’70s my university made some entry-level courses Pass-Fail. The argument for doing so was that the old grading system was too harsh and discouraging, that eventually all courses would be ungraded. Duh. Smart people can sure be dumb.
I think you hit the nail on the head. Wolff just doesn’t like meritocracy. I think this is understandable. It is hard to be in a position of judging people when you want all to do well. It is hard to confront the fact that some people are more intelligent and capable than others due to their doing well in the genetic lottery. It all seems so unfair.
However, this is just one of the many elements of the human condition that some of us don’t like. Another is death. (We all don’t like that one.) I see no easy way to make these things go away. The best we can do is make them more bearable. Wolff hints at a a few improvements that might help — more time to assess his students, for example. In my opinion, he should spend more energy on making those improvements. Getting rid of meritocracy is a foolish effort. Even the future portrayed in Star Trek still had meritocracy.
But won’t Socialism abolish the unequal distribution of abilities, along with the unequal distribution of height, beauty, strength, disease susceptibility, etc? Comes
the Socialist Revolution, everybody will play the violin as well as Joshua Bell.
I fear that Professor Wolff, whose arguments used to be quite sophisticated even in his Stalinoid days, is showing signs of senile dementia. But, of course, in Socialism there will no longer be any senile dementia.
Those are all side-effects of capitalism. . . . There’s an old sci-fi short-story where the society is focused on eliminating differences between individuals, to the extent of shortening tall people, and putting devices in people’s ears so they don’t hear better than others.
The short story you are referring to is “Harrison Bergeron” by Vonnegut.
Thanks for that link. I knew the plot sounded familiar. Good to read it again.
No. We have to wait for the robots to take over before we get that kind of equality.
I think one major problem with doing away with meritocracy, imperfect though it may be, is that nepotism and cronyism often take its place. As I get older I understand more and more the dread and worry of sending someone you care about off to compete in an often cold and uncaring Darwinian free market. But the thing is, this is life. Even if I could secure my niece and nephews wonderful jobs, I couldn’t save them from any possible rejection of friendship on the playground, or in love, and so on. Better for hand wringing auntie types and those facing this cruel world to learn some techniques for resiliency, even though, again, I totally understand the instinct to try and pull away from competition. It’s harsh but it’s life – if kids aren’t competing in a meritocracy, they’ll likely just end up competing for friendship with the right people in a crony based system.
Marxist view of a sweater:
It took 4 hours to make it, so the maker should be paid for four hours of work.
Free market view of a sweater:
The sweater has 3 sleeves, not 2, and its maker will receive the market value of a sweater with 3 sleeves.
Also capitalism and free markets are not the same thing. Even if they often go hand in hand, you can have one without the other.
You sure that’s a pic of Prof. Wolff?
Looks kinda like that other flaming Marxist, Dick Cheney.
Wolff’s opinions are typical of those who have never actually worked to produce real things, such as scientists and engineers. Without some system of ranking by ability, people with good organizational skills would have no way to organize people into productive groups. And these days it’s rare for individuals outside good-sized organizations to produce new science or new devices that benefit society as a whole.
Once a person becomes productively engaged, his fellows inevitably rank him or her based on his ability to produce a product that actually works. Those unable to produce working products are useless to an organization that makes them for use by other people and organizations.
For example (I spent my career making analog microchips so I know what I’m talking about), suppose your company supplies car companies with microchips that control functions of an electronic power steering assembly. If an engineer is unable to produce a chip that does its job, and does it without failure over the lifetime of a vehicle, his company will be unable to sell that product to any car company. And he will soon lose his job for obvious reasons.
People able to consistently produce working chips get a good reputation with their fellows and are called upon to mentor others and do other productive things. Such a reputation is part of a system of ranking — a meritocracy, if you will — that automatically arises when groups of people do necessary jobs. The incompetent are weeded out. The same should be part of any educational system that aims to create competent, productive people.
People have various levels of competency to do various jobs. I once worked with an engineer who was not especially good at engineering, but over time became my manager and was among the most competent managers I’ve ever worked for. Bob eventually became the engineering manager for the entire company. On the other hand, I was a good engineer but a lousy manager. I would have quickly failed had I been put in Bob’s position.
It’s irritating to read about the opinions of academics like Wolff who have no real-world experience with the things they’re pronouncing upon.
“As I recall, some colleges (Reed College may be one of them) don’t give grades.”
This is true–or at least was when I taught there and I’m assuming is still the case. The overall effect of this policy was healthy, I think, though it did contribute to a pervasive sense at Reed that one’s behavior didn’t have consequences.
I spent my first 6 years of “college” in a Jesuit seminary, and while we we’re given grades we weren’t allowed to see them and were never “evaluated” in any way. This is a slightly different system, one that forced us to focus on whatever it was we were learning. (I did get to see all my grades when I left the Jebbies and, as it turned out, had done better than I expected. 😇)
I would like to offer a couple of comments/clarifications that might be useful as both a response to this entry and some of the comments. Firstly, to argue that “socialism failed” due to “a lack of incentives” is at its very best, an over simplification of where the combination of central planning and state ownership failed in the USSR and its allies. There were extensive pay differentials for different jobs and levels of skill, position in society, etc. and whether the incentives were in the form of higher pay (which existed in both the Stalinist and post-Stalin eras) or “moral rewards” and the need to demonstrate loyalty to the plan through “storming” and being a heroic worker- the incentives for working harder were always there. There was significant mobility as well. The “incentives” alas, did often encourage other behaviors that were not so productive. There were also parts of the Soviet economy that worked surprisingly well along with parts that did not work. I would recommend reading Roy Medvedev’s work (among others). Secondly, since this blog is an academic blog, I think some of the academic/political debates on the nature of the USSR are relevant. There are a lot of areas where I am in profound disagreement with Wolff but on area where I do agree is his characterization of the USSR as “State Capitalist”. Thirdly, though it feels kind of odd to be partially defending Wolff, he has done a good job of clearly articulating the idea of socialism as workplace democracy rather than bureaucratic control. I will say that I find the idea of abolishing grades to be rather silly for many reasons-you could replace grades with lots of things but in the end it would wind up as just another grading scheme. For the record, no one should interpret anything I say here as any kind of defense of the USSR or of Stalinism (or Maoism): it was a brutal, heirachical system. Even thought the USSR was identifed with “actually existing socialism” in practice there was very little emphasis on creating a “classless society” or of emphasizing radical egalitarianism, aside from official rhetoric which I don’t think anyone believed in after the 1920’s. If you want to make the argument that the combination of central planning as it was done in the USSR along with near 100% state ownership failed, I would agree, though it’s failure needs to be better understood and analysed by some means other than “lack of incentives”. Also, for the record, as an academic and scholar, I take Marx seriously, though I do not consider myself to be a Marxist. I have known quite a few Marxist economists and other radical economists and I would hazard to say that Wolff’s desire to do away with grades is not in my experience widely shared.
Indeed, CCCP Inc was the world’s largest company town, Pullman on a continental scale, plus gulags. Everyone was an employee of the single firm, with all employees living in company housing and paid in comparatively worthless company scrip which they could only use in company stores, and freedom to move around or especially out of town was severely restricted. All media were company mouthpieces, and access to accurate information was also resolutely suppressed. Gee, what could go wrong?
As for the dreaded meritocracy, Donald Trump ironically exactly exemplifies a non-meritocratic beneficiary, where the Presidency became an entry level position with no qualification strings attached, blundered into by the foibles of the Electoral College ginned up by a few decades of GOP gerrymandering. In the normal politics of yore, an ignorant bullying narcissistic liar such as Trump would have been weeded out of even the GOP vetting system.
Welcome to Trumplandia!
Let’s also get rid of resumes they unfairly favor the smart and hard-working. This would make hiring so much easier! No time wasted reading prejudicial information that might stop someone from being hired! Wolff is a stable genius!
If I found out that my prospective gall bladder surgeon got a “Pass” for excellence in his board certification for abdominal surgery, I would immediately find a new surgeon.
It is worth recalling that phony egalitarian postures were regularly struck in the CCCP company town. Trofim Lysenko sold his line as the earthy wisdom of a simple, peasant plant breeder—in contrast to those snooty Mendelians with their meritocratic insistence on statistics and control experiments. In a similar way, Party control of literature and art pretended to be egalitarian.
Given the genocidal death toll of communism in the 20th Century, why is an self-avowed marxist treated differently from an self-avowed nazi?
“Ah, but that wasn’t REAL communism. REAL communism has never been tried”.
I believe that’s the standard get-out clause you hear from people like Professor Wolff.
Now I’m just imagining that guy with the Tiki Torch declaring “Real Nazism has never been tried because we never got our thousand year reich.” or maybe “Fascism is just an economic system.”
At first glance I thought it was Dick Cheney!
Right! Who cares how smart, capable, or hard-working someone is?
I’m sure you’ve all observed, at all times and places, that everyone is equally endowed in these parameters, right?
I suggest Prof. Wolff grab any schmuck off the street next time he needs: A surgeon, an anesthesiologist, an airline pilot, a bridge engineer, etc., etc.
A counterpoint to Richard Wolff (though not a direct reply):
John V.C. Nye: Make School Hard Again. Grade inflation needs to stop., Reason [Magazine], June 2019
Grade inflation runs counter to all 3 functions of grades (see comment #19 above).
Nye’s got it right, imo.
Grade inflation is a problem in British universities too. When I was a student in the early 1980s, the top class of degree, known as a “first”, was awarded to no more than 5% to 10% of students. Today, that figure is closer to 40%:
Humans apparently are predisposed to favor simplistic, minimalist models, explanations and ideologies. This is the key problem I have with most all of the popular strongly held ideologies / economic models from any region of the spectrum. They completely ignore the messiness and complexity of reality and insist on one, or a few, simplistic rules. Too many folks are like this professor. They think any competition is evil or, on the other end, that any regulation of competition is evil. One extreme or the other. Neither of which maps to reality. This professor is ridiculously wrong and a child could point out some of the reasons why. It is hard not to be disgusted by our institutions of higher education when they produce such stupid products as this.
A three year trial of non-grading would be good – that should get me through to retirement
pass/fail grades are much better than numerical grades. the latter provides very little information unless the test items are standardized.
a grad school “b” cannot be compared even within a univ, let alone across the nation or internationally. all that can be said is that it is a passing grade.
compare a phd in the sciences to a phd in education and the only shared standards thatll be evident are typographical.
grading a course on a curve is wrong because the grades are meaningless beyond the sample of students in the classroom. and these arent necessarily small differences.
the inferences (ie validity) that can be drawn from curved univ grades are minimal compared to the inferences that can be drawn from competency, standardized, or large norm referenced tests.
finally, competency-based score distributions are more peaked than norm referenced scores. this is clear when comparing drivers license test score distributions to sat/gre/mcat score distributions. the latter being flatter.
It seems to me the answer to some of the problems you mentioned isn’t a less detailed grading system like pass fail, but a more detailed one that accounts for some of the differences in the value of a particular letter grade at different places/times etc etc.
I’ve worked with Russians both in and out of Russia and it wasn’t so much that the Soviet system didn’t grade people but that people were not better rewarded for their efforts and responsibilities. Russian labourers are notorious for their lack of initiative because there was no incentive to do better, it was much safer just to do as you were told. Of course, where meritocracy was conspicuously absent was often in the administrative and managerial positions which better reflected one’s position in the Party rather than ability.
The Russian basement Flooding Fixers, indoor plumbers, garage door installers, and kitchen cabinet installers that I’ve dealt with recently have all been extremely competent, efficient, and hard-working, Somewhat surprisingly.…
You need metrics for crying out loud. One thing I have to say is that the way of learning could be different. More experiential in that you do things versus only attending lectures. I have learned best when coached. The medical school I work at does only clinical skill training and there are no written exams; the students are tested through simulations.
No offense, but I highly doubt your experiences in learning are applicable to the average American. (You are much too smart) Drawing inferences and making analogies is super useful, but doesn’t say much about what would or would not be helpful in this case. I’m not saying you are necessarily wrong, I just dont think your experiences give us any useful information whatever.
In the long run, meritocracy would trend toward genetic determinism. Not that that’s much of a realistic problem now as we decidedly do not live in a meritocratic society.
It’s funny because the technology industry loves the idea (rightly so in my mind) of meritocracy – no matter who you are, a good idea is a good idea. They often try to strive toward this (the tech companies) even though they usually fail because we’re humans and can’t help ourselves in our foibles and behaviours. But this railing against meritocracy just strikes me as antithetical to the world that is innovating right now. I never thought I’d see such a democratizing concept so demonized.
Late to the party, but I’m very much enjoying the thoughtful commentary as per usual. I’m a big fan of narrative evaluations, and less so of grades. A narrative evaluation tells much more about a student than a mere letter. One could earn a B but in an evaluation be described as being ‘somewhat proficient’, which is far more telling. As far as incentive, I think the stakes are far higher with evals, knowing that every interaction, every assignment and your very attitude will likely earn a mention.
So, his proposal is a socialistic state with and educational system without grading? Can we try it out in North Korea first, please?
I imagine that Professor Wolff would be happier teaching in the utopia of Lake Wobegon, where all the students are above average.
The problem with destroying hierarchies based on merit is that we can’t do without hierarchies PERIOD, and they will simply be replaced by hierarchies based on other less useful things like how tightly you adhere to political orthodoxies etc. Wolff is a fantasist, a dangerous one at that, plain and simple.