The Spirituality of Grades

It is that time of the semester. The first assignments have been completed and the grades returned. If you are like many students, you may be asking yourself a question: Are grades really necessary? Sitting at a desk with three stacks of papers from three classes, that is also on my mind. Indeed, it is an odd situation to be on the other end of the evaluation process. I love to read student papers. I enjoy knowing what students think, feel, and understand. It is also a delight to see how students become more effective expressing themselves over time. So, why are grades important? And what would spirituality have to do with them?

I offer three theological insights:

  1. St. Paul: “We All Fall Short of the Glory of God:” This passage in Romans 3 is a source of consolation. It reminds us of our failings. If you start the semester and bomb an assignment, take this passage seriously. You are human. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Perhaps you didn’t start in time. Maybe you missed some classes. Perhaps you didn’t read as carefully as you could have. Maybe your job, your participation in athletics, or a budding relationship got more attention. That is okay. Managing multiple obligations – even good ones – is a part of life. As Martin Seligman recommends in Learned Optimism, “de-catastrophize.” Don’t assume that this failure is defining. Visit with your professor. Work harder. Ask for help from friends. There is hope. The gift of a grade is that it can help you see where you need to improve.
  2. Jesus: “The last will be first, and the first will be last:” Grades can nurture humility. When Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard who come to work at different times but all get paid the same, he closes with this line. If you are successful in the academic life, remember: it is not about you or me. It is about us. One of my favorite things to see in a class is when a top student goes to the aid of a person struggling. Both benefit. As Seligman suggests, the greatest joy in life comes from using our own talents and gifts in service of others. Jesus’ admonition in the Gospel of Matthew reminds us to be mindful of the last when we are the first.
  3. St. John: “God is love:” In I John chapter four we get one of the most important passages in the New Testament. We are loved. When done well, grades can be a surprising source of love. They can affirm our gifts, point us in the direction of our talents, and help us find our vocation. In Generation Me Jean Twenge suggests that the self-esteem movement of recent decades has harmed young people. Getting high marks for average work isn’t a gift. It is a trap because it doesn’t help a person know where that person’s abilities really lie.

The next time you get a grade you don’t like, take heart. We all have our moments. The final word is grace (not “grade”). And the most important grade is often not ours. It is the grade of the person having the hardest time. Help that person out. Finally, remember that grades can be a source of love. They can help us to celebrate our gifts, feel good about our hard work, and gain a deeper sense of the vocation which God has for our lives. May God’s blessings be with you.

~ Peter


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