Reforming Education: The Chuck E. Cheese Model
At The Atlantic, self-professed “Grade-Inflating Professor,” Oliver Lee Batema,n has penned a bold defense of grade inflation, one that, if taken to its logical conclusion, holds forth the promise of radically reforming our moribund university system, with its hidebound faculty clinging to old-school delusions that learning matters.
Grade inflation is often described as a “problem” in American universities; I myself have described it as a “problem” and have done my level best — much to the dismay of my students — to avoid it. Thanks to Bateman, I see the error of my ways.
We might call the reforms inspired by Bateman’s article Chuck E. Cheese’s Model for the 21st Century University, a university where everyone gets a token and “graduates” feeling really good about themselves.
Bateman starts his defense of grade inflation by pointing out that students have to “enter an uncertain job market” and therefore “want to receive some additional grade-inflated bang for their tuition buck.” This is the business model of the university writ large, the university as producer, where instead of widgets the product is Alumni — ideally, alumni who will get high-paying jobs and then make generous donations to the
factory school that helped them get the high-paying job.
Bateman points out that students increasingly demand inflated grades, citing education blogger Rebecca Schuman at Slate, who confessed to being a “grade-A milquetoast” when it comes to grading, largely to save herself from poor student evaluations and whining students. “Grading fairly,” she writes, “is just not worth the fight.”
I’m sympathetic to Schuman’s plight: I am at present in the midst of a now two-month-long series of complaints by a student for whom an A- is a profound slap in the face. This student has put far more work into thousand-word essays that attempt to “prove” the merit of the case for an upward-adjustment in grade than was ever put into actual course work. This is increasingly common and increasingly irritating, particularly for those us who, like Schuman, teach on short-term contracts.
This is where Bateman’s new Chuck E. Cheese’s Model for the 21st Century University is so promising. Chuck E. Cheese’s, as nearly every parent knows, is a chain of pizza parlor franchises that specializes in no-muss, no-fuss birthday parties: little kids run around, play video games and Skee-Ball and the like, and then sit down at a long table that has been set up by the restaurant staff, get served pizza and soft drinks, sing the birthday song, eat cake, and then leave. Though parents are often loathe to admit it, for all its high-energy squealing and headache-inducing machine noise, the place is a life-saver.
One of the things kids like most about Chuck E. Cheese’s is the fact that, no matter now well or poorly they do at a particular game, it will issue them a strip of tickets they can collect and redeem for a prize later.
In Bateman’s view, college class grades are like the tickets kids get from the Skee-Ball machine at Chuck E. Cheese’s — it’s really all they want. Just like the birthday party kids don’t really care about the pizza, college students don’t really care about the class — they just want the token that shows they “took” the class. And they want the token that gives them the biggest prize: the A.
Jack and Jill graduate high school in June 2015. They show up at Harvard University — for Harvard is the only university America will need once the system is reformed — on, say, September 2. They “enroll” in their first semester’s “classes” and show up on the first day of “class,” September 3. They receive grades of A in each class — no complaints there. On September 4, they register for their second semester, and so on.
Imagine the efficiencies such streamlining will produce! We can reduce time-to-completion for undergraduate degree to one month! On October 1, Jill and Jack can move on to law or medical school, finish those up in another month, and by the time they turn 19 both could be practicing District Attorneys or brain surgeons. Talk about time management!
Students would be thrilled by the reforms. They will be relieved of any obligation to “study” or “learn,” especially when it comes to “studying” or “learning” things that “aren’t relevant” to future job success — you know, useless things like history and philosophy and the like. There will be no further need to compete for internships or scholarships. More importantly, they’ll all leave college feeling really, really good about themselves, because no one in any of their “classes” will have “blown the curve” for them — A is the curve!
Summa Cum Laude for everyone, bartender!
Current debates over how much debt college students are in will disappear. Though the Brookings Institution recently released a report claiming that the “student debt crisis” is being overblown, the authors’ data still supports the conclusion there have been “significant increases in average debt levels” in the past 20 years. With college lasting only a month under the Chuck E. Cheese’s Model reforms, that problem is solved.
The Chuck E. Cheese’s Model will also help address one of the controversies roiling the contemporary university — the status of contingent faculty (like me), the adjuncts and lecturers and Visiting Professors who come and go on a case-by-case basis. Bateman’s new model solves that problem — there is no need for contingent faculty in a university where there are no classes.
Another benefit of this reformed education system would be the elimination of costly public institutions and their pesky unions, something that Republicans will surely get behind. After all, there’s no need for state university systems, because Harvard could simply operate year-’round, pushing graduating classes through at the rate of one per month.
Some from places like Texas or Nebraska or Georgia, where college football is big business, might object to such reforms. No problem! Simply incorporate the team and play ball! As Rashad McCants recently told ESPN, he didn’t go to classes at the University of North Carolina anyway; his “major” was basketball.
I like teaching. Indeed, I love teaching. But I now see that teaching is, for all intents and purposes, useless. No one wants to be taught; no one wants to learn. They want the token that proves they “went to class.” And they want that token to be an “A.” Bateman defends grade-inflation on a kind of unit-cost basis: “Based on our current in-state tuition rates, students pay approximately $50 per class to watch my lectures.” Because “it’s in everyone’s best interest to maximize the value of these costly interactions,” he continues, “it makes no sense to impose harsh grading standards.”
Until the Bateman Reforms are complete, it’s possible I might continue to be employed as a contingent faculty member. I think it’s reasonable, then, that I approach my own work on the same unit-cost basis that Bateman recommends for grading. After all, it’s well known that contingent faculty are systematically underpaid. The new, streamlined class system will alleviate the massive imbalance between work contributed to the university and compensation received.
For example, I’m paid about $5,000 for a semester-long class –around $312 per week. I put a lot of work into my classes — which, on the basis of Bateman’s unit-cost approach, is a really stupid thing to do. Students aren’t there for what’s “in” my classes, they’re there for the sake of having “taken” my class. As a strictly rational actor, what I ought to do is simply show up on the first day, take the roll, distribute the A’s, and then go home. Better for the students; better for me.
Now purists and ideologues and intellectuals and other old fogies might wonder what would be the purpose, the value, of such an education system? There wouldn’t be any, other than in terms of forms processed and alumni contributions received. But judging by the constant whining students do about their grades, and the constant jihad universities wage against faculty, there’s no value to the system now anyway.
Of course, one might question the qualifications of 20-year-old brain surgeon who, like every other member of her medical school, graduated “at the top of her class,” but c’mon — caveat emptor! “Who cares that I don’t actually know anything? I got an A!”
What grade-inflation really does is bear witness to the long-overdue death of one of this country’s cherished mythologies — that of America as meritocracy. Let’s face it: merit no longer counts for much in America, if in fact it ever did at all. As Matt Bruenig pointed out at Salon, no one really “builds that:” the trick to being rich is to be rich.
Come to think of it, there’s no reason to limit grade-inflation to college. Perhaps what’s needed is life-inflation: We’ll all get into Harvard; we’ll all graduate with honors; we’ll all become One-Percenters and Presidents and Potentates; and we’ll all ride off into the sunset on unicorns.
Because we deserve that.Click here for reuse options!
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