I usually avoid commenting on contemporary events in this forum, not because I lack the interest, though this is often true as well, but because it is one of the ways that I am trying to write the web more slowly, one of the ways that I am trying to contest the internet’s habitual demand for speed and currency. Today, however, I discovered an article in the Globe and Mail that I feel compelled to discuss, and so, since it is probably necessary to prove the rule in any case, I will make this one exception.
The article, for those who would prefer not to read it for themselves, reports that professor Denis Rancourt has been fired from the University of Ottawa for refusing to provide individual grades to his fourth year physics class. During the first class of the semester, he informed his students that they would each be receiving a grade of A+, which would free them from the pressure to test well and permit them to be scientists instead. Though Rancourt had previously been involved in his share of controversies, it was this refusal to grade that finally convinced the university to take the very rare step of firing a tenured faculty member.
This should not surprise anyone very much, of course. I could write for pages about how the ability to measure knowledge through grades and and courses and degrees is essential to the viability of the educational institution as such, about how this imposes on the institutional instructor the necessity of justifying grades through all the procedures of marking and commenting and correcting that consume so much of their time, and about how this permits the educational institution to attain only, at its highest, to a kind of editorial approach to learning. I will spare us all those pages.
Instead, I just want to express my saddness at seeing the inevitable suppression of the desire for learning by institutionalized education. I know almost nothing about Rancourt, and I am not otherwise endorsing him in any way, but I applaud his attempt to encourage learning to take place in the cracks and crevices of education, and I sympathize with him in his present situation. Though I am cynical enough to believe that this must necessarily be the result of what he was attempting to do, I am grieved, as I always am, that learning can find no place for itself in the university.