We live in a standardized world. There are standardized goals to meet and intermediate standards to mark our progress along the way. Athletes are judged by statistics, businessmen are judged by profits(or production), lawyers are judged by cases won, and on the college campus, students are judged by their grades. We are mercenaries, all of us, and students perhaps the clearest of all.
A mercenary is, historically, a soldier hired to fight in a foreign army for money. The German Hessians of the Revolutionary War are probably the most famous example of this. These were men who didn’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak, but they gladly signed on to the British cause for money. They fought the same fight but with the wrong end in mind. So it is with the college student. If a student were asked why he studied, he would likely answer, “To learn,” and he would be at least partially lying. The same student, after being given a bit of truth serum, would answer, “To make good grades”(and if you didn’t check him there, he would probably continue with “so that I can be the best student in my class so that I can be impressive on my resume so that I can make tons of money so that I can be financially secure for the rest of my life”--but that’s another story). Grades, not knowledge, are the true aim.
There was a day when a collegiate system was envisioned in the United States. There were founders of early colleges like Harvard and Princeton who, as far as I can imagine it, had an ideal in mind: young, God-imaging thinkers could give themselves to studying the nuances of God’s world and God’s people with the aim of understanding it all better in order to worship and image God(after all, these were Christian institutions at their founding). But they met a challenge, or perhaps anticipated a challenge, when they realized that students would not maintain the motivation for such understanding. So whether these founders knew it or not, they plumbed the depths of the sinful human heart and found a stronger desire: personal performance and reputation. If a student was enticed with the tempting taste of being the best, or threatened with the intimidating implication of failure, his motivation was far less fragile. So the grading system, at least for the American college campus, was born.
Grades are a concession to the waning wonder of the human mind. They originated as a Machiavellian means to the end of understanding, but along the way, they became an end in and of themselves. Now they are taken for granted as the proper motivation for any college student. But the proper motivation, to be as clear and Christian as possible, is the knowledge of the glory of God. God has created a wondrous world and wondrous brains which we can use to explore its intricacies, paint its beauty, learn from its history, understand its people, and, most powerfully, delve into the glory of His grace.
But...we still have grades. So are there any appropriate considerations of our grades as we sit under their reign? I’ll give two that I feel are God-honoring:
Healthy Motivation #1: A credible testimony for your professors and classmates.
The apostle Paul spends a great deal of time in his letters, especially II Corinthians, defending his credibility. Why? So that he can be well-respected? Not at all! After all, he says in II Corinthians 4:5, “...what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.” But he knows that a respectable name offers great credibility to his message, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In academic circles, no ear will be given to the slacker. To the non-learner. And perhaps, more shallowly, to the student who gets a C-minus. I certainly believe that a healthy aim at using your God-imaging brain to learn and solve the wonders of God’s world will produce a solid grade as a by-product, but if you’re looking for a reason to be conscious of your grades, here is a legitimate one.
Healthy Motivation #2: A means to the end of loving people.
Most hospitals in the world won’t let you walk into a patient’s room and practice medicine. They require a medical degree. Medical degrees are obtained by graduating from medical school. Medical schools generally require a certain GPA for admittance. So strong consciousness of GPA is a necessity for aspiring medical students. But beware: the long-term end of advancing the love of Christ by practicing medicine should remain near the forefront of the undergraduate’s mind, or the mercenary will rear its ugly head once more.
A right response here is that of personal evaluation. Why do I study? What is the end I have in mind? And a more astute question would be, Where do I get the fuel to operate this counter-culturally?
Start evaluating, and I’ll offer some help with that last question in the next post.