Grad(e)ations of Culture

We have a student e-mail list at the graduate school I am attending. It gets all sorts of posts and threads (groups of posts and responses to them), from announcements of free food, to the buying and selling of goods and services, outings, events, academic questions and answers, news and video clips … the works.

A student from India made an interesting observation on it not too long ago. He said:

I recently became aware of a cross-cultural academic nuance that I had to share. Apparently it is inappropriate to ask fellow students about their grades here in the US. This is in complete contrast to the educational experience in India where not only is this a very fair question, you almost never had to ask to find out. That is because a lot of schools would post the result of the entire student body on public notice boards for everyone to see.

This nuance (“Cultural étiquette 101”, as he put it) came as a bit of news to me too, actually. I come from India as well, and although I never went to college there, people were indeed very free and open about their marks at school. They were never grades, by the way – what do those few letters mean, after all? It was always marks out of a hundred or out of twenty or twenty-five; competition was stiff among the millions of students in India and getting, say, 91.2% or 91.3% might have made all the difference between acceptance and rejection to an institution or a scholarship.

The responses by the American students echoed one another, while referring to broader aspects of society and culture in this country that ultimately have their effects on the academic scheme of things.

[M]aybe it’s because we’re over achievers and either embarassed by a bad grade or feel like we’re flaunting our good grades if we tell others.

Perhaps the aversion to making grades public has to do with the spirit of promoting self-esteem and eternal optimism that is particularly strong in some American circles? Taken to its extreme, as if we can’t puncture the illusion that “of course we’re all above average!”

I have always assumed it had something to do with the Protestant Work Ethic vibe/Puritan roots of the US–hard work is a duty, humility is absolute, privacy is supreme. … I recall being told early on in my (public) school never to discuss our academic achievements publicly. It’s sort of like how we don’t talk about money (“How much did your condo cost?” “How much do you make yearly?”), perhaps, which in some countries is totally kosher.

I believe [politician] Ed Rendell refers to this concept as the “wussification of America.” It’s the same reason we all got trophies even if we lost, and why the [local public] schools would do something idiotic like not let children celebrate  Halloween in school because of its alleged connections to witchcraft (true story).

One student from Brazil added that the situation was pretty much the same there as in India.

It’s interesting to think about how the social and even the political setting of a place would influence something that seems so innocuous at first glance. On the other hand, the United States is a very diverse place, so, across the country, in different circumstances, there could be different approaches to this question. As two of the American students who responded put it:

I think part of it as well might have to do with the fact that a lot of us were always conscious that families had different expectations [about] what was an “acceptable” grade vs. an “achievement” vs. a “failure,” which ties pretty closely with the cultural diversity found in much of America. Kids learn pretty early that some families celebrate what other families want to see improve, and discussing grades only reinforces that – no one wants to hear, “Your parents are rewarding you for a B? Mine would hire a tutor.” …  Neither is right or wrong, but as a kid it’s difficult to understand that, which means that the question often gets circumvented.

There are of course exceptions to every rule and in some instances, maybe amongst your study group where you all worked really hard together or if you know someone was particularly worried about what grade they were going to get, it would not be inappropriate to ask.  But I’d bet if you ask someone how they did on that exam or that paper the response will be… “I did fine or can’t complain” = A or A- or “Not my best work, but it will do” = probably a B or A- depending on the person or “Damn that teacher totally has it out for me” = less than a B.

In my own experience, I just graduated with a four-year bachelor’s degree from an institution of higher education in the U.S. that was unique in its own way in that, among other things, it didn’t bother with grades. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, as students could request to see their grades, if they so desired. But the grades were never revealed, there was never any notification about them, they were never sent to parents or anything. The point of education, I would say, is the learning of the real ABCs, and the twenty three other letters.

Of course, if you are all that worried about your grades in the U.S., maybe you should study in Hawaii. As mentioned in the 1994 movie North, the language spoken there has very few letters – and no B, C, D, or F – so everyone is guaranteed to be a straight-A student. (It’s a comedy movie, though, so I think it would be a safer bet to hit those books.)