by Conor Friedersdorf

Let's talk report cards:

It could be a Zen koan: if everybody in the class gets an A, what does an A mean?

The answer: Not what it should, says Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade,” Mr. Perrin said. “If everyone gets an A for adequate completion of tasks, it cripples our ability to recognize exemplary scholarship.”

But what if you're taking an introductory algebra class, or learning Spanish, or taking basic macroeconomics? In certain classes, mastery of the subject matter is the point, and if you're at an elite school composed of high school valedictorians with SAT scores in the 97th percentile, I don't see the purpose of worrying if most kids get As. (There are, of course, classes where recognizing exemplary scholarship makes more sense.)

Looking back on college, I am thankful that I didn't intend on ever going to graduate school, even if I later wound up there. Unconcerned with my grades, I put tremendous effort into classes that seemed as though they'd prove rewarding. In doing so, I occasionally stole time from classes taught by subpar professors who assigned senseless tasks, or didn't complete graded homework when I was certain that I had an exceptional understading of the material.

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