The !Golden Rule and Reed College

In the programming language R, ! is the negation function — !FALSE is TRUE, for example. The !Golden Rule, the opposite of the Golden Rule, is to treat others as you yourself do not wish to be treated.

An example comes from Colin Diver, the President of Reed College (my alma mater), who complains in an Atlantic Monthly piece about college rankings. Reed has opted out of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. President Diver explains why:

Trying to rank institutions of higher education is a little like trying to rank religions or philosophies.

That’s right: If different colleges have different goals, it is unfair and misleading to rank them on the same scale.

By far the most important consequence of sitting out the rankings game . . . is the freedom to pursue our own educational philosophy, not that of some newsmagazine.

Actually, you can pursue a singular educational philosophy in any case, rankings or no rankings. It’s just that the rankings punish you for doing so.

This is an example of the !Golden Rule because what President Diver complains about happens in every Reed classroom. All the students in a class are graded on the same scale with the same requirements. Perhaps different students have different goals, just as different colleges have different goals? Perhaps this system of grading punishes students with unusual goals, just as the U.S. News ranking system punishes colleges with unusual goals?

10 Replies to “The !Golden Rule and Reed College”

  1. Students choose the college and the particular class they are going to attend. Thus, they have consented to, or desire, the form of evaluation (at least on average, in the aggregate). Reed, the institution, is making its choice as to the propriety of US News’s rankings, just as some students go to UC Santa Cruz and get written grades.

  2. They desire the form of evaluation they are going to get? I don’t think they have a choice. There’s a great deal of similarity from one college to the next in how students are graded.

  3. Perhaps this is why Reed hands back extensive written comments but not grades on papers and exams — to encourage students to focus on their own evaluation of their success/failure. I have friends from Reed that never saw their grades until they applied to graduate school years later. People absolutely focus on their own goals – the grades you get at Reed only matter when you choose to apply to another school (i.e. when you choose to conform to the graduate school’s system of selecting you).

  4. Are Reed profs still doing that? I knew several people who were harmed because they didn’t realize they weren’t doing well.

    Extensive written comments are good, of course. But the importance of grades and the likelihood of graduate school — especially for Reed graduates — are facts of life. The profs are not actually living in a dream world where grades don’t matter, I’m sure they realize it is a myth, a fantasy, one of those lies told to fool the public.

    A reasonable policy would be give extensive comments AND grades. Why don’t they give grades? What’s the real reason? I believe they don’t give grades so that they won’t have to defend them. It makes their lives substantially easier, in other words.

  5. I go to Reed and wish to point out that Reed does give grades. Reed records them and the only difference is that the grades are undisclosed unless students request it (from their adviser or directly from the profs. in question).

  6. Seth, when you asked, “why don’t they give grades?” why didn’t you do your homework instead of blurting out something you obviously hadn’t enough info on. Also, careful when you say things like, “it’s a fact of life” ergo grades matter… facts of life exist, yes, but it is up to colleges to think outside the box and put the focus where it needs to be – on learning and personalizing each student’s experience. Slavery was a fact of life once… Women weren’t allowed to vote either or earn the same amount of money as a man… all facts of life and all because someone first challenged the status quo.

    And why in the world would you think that it would make instructor’s lives easier not to give out letter grades? Ever been to public high school? Letter grades are abundant there and very easy to dish out with little time spent elsewhere. When’s the last time a student in public high school was required to sit down individually with a student to talk about the actual subject matter?

  7. There’s a difference between ignoring a fact of life and challenging it. The Reed practice of not giving grades is the former. As far as I can tell, it has no effect on anyone outside Reed.

    “Why in the world do [I] think that it would make instructor’s lives easier not to give letter grades?” Within a few years of teaching at Berkeley, it became abundantly clear. In other words, the answer to your question is: My experience as a college professor.

  8. I just would like to comment that my future was extremely adversely affected by a high school classmate who went to Reed two years 79-81. This school’s philsophy is SCARY. I just read about it in an article entitlted “Screwed” published in 1997. It really shows how bizarre Reed is. Now I know why this woman was so bizarre and irrational towards me! It was extremely scary reading, and the side notes at the left of the web article made my eyeballs pop out.

    It teaches some really wicked things to its students such that they are above the law and can live a life of denial. I was just astonished at the free ticket life these people get who come out of this college that, as previously stated, doesn’t really have a grading system (kind of like remaining in denial that things are too political that grades don’t matter, just that you pass).

    What a great school for someone that lets you choose your teacher (so obviously political), and where you don’t have to see your grades unless you ask for them! Ms. Princess screwed up my future for many years with the methods she learned there.

    I’m sorry, I just think some of these colleges teach people how to be evil and do damage to others lives. It’s scary reading.

  9. @cheryl,
    please get other points of view which aren’t so blatantly inflammatory before trashing Reed. It operates on the honor principle, which states essentially that students shouldn’t do anything to harm others. In my experiences at Reed I have found that the student body absolutely uphold the honor principle, and I don’t believe I’ve ever been taught to be evil, unless by evil you mean not fitting into social norms.

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