John Dewey and the "Ends-Means" of the Pass/Fail Policy

John Dewey and the "Ends-Means" of the Pass/Fail Policy

Gabriel Slaughter

Gabriel Slaughter

There always seems to be a crisis in education. In the past fifty years, an age in which students have been referred to as "human capital," the reduction of achievement to numbers and letters has reformed the problem with attention to grading policies. A product of this dilemma in the late 60s was the implementation of a pass/fail grading system in a handful of American liberal arts colleges. Its goal was to subdue grade anxiety and stimulate students to take classes outside of areas they felt comfortable with. Today, the policy is employed miscellaneously throughout the country, though generally a student can opt to "pass/fail" a small number of courses if unrelated to their major program in place of receiving a letter grade. Critics have contested its credibility quietly and inconclusively, while "progressive" pedagogues favor its continued implementation. But is the pass/fail system truly progressive, and how does it really fare today?

John Dewey, the supposed progenitor of progressive education and one of the founders of American pragmatism, might offer us some insight. Though Dewey remains ambivalent on what exactly a good grading framework should look like, he was very clear on what one should not look like. In particular, it should not homogenize a student's various capabilities into a single quantity, as any "special capacity, say in music, dramatics, drawing, mechanical skill or any other art ... figures in the final result only as smoothed down, ironed out, against a large number of other factors." An instrument as arguably uncalibrated as the GPA, therefore, does not have a place in Dewey's university (and was not, in fact, implemented in his first laboratory school). So, it is tempting to argue that he would endorse the pass/fail policy: one of its objectives, after all, is to reduce emphasis on discrete grades.

The question for Dewey on the value of pass/fail might be: does the objective that instituted the policy align with the learning process it incites?

The pass/fail's other objective – to encourage intellectual experimentation – also seems to fit Dewey's philosophy of education. In his views on the relationship between democracy and education, Dewey stresses the necessity of plurality of thought, and continuous reevaluation of curriculum content. If democracy is "a mode of conjoint, communicated experience," it offers education a criterion to guide reform. And if a successful democracy hinges upon the idea that "interests are mutually interpenetrating, and [that] progress, or readjustment, is an important consideration," then this criterion must be one that takes diversity of knowledge and readjustment to be not only privileges, but duties of education. Therefore, an educational policy whose goal is to encourage academic diversity certainly appears to be one that Dewey would support.

But Dewey vehemently opposes evaluating an end independently of the process by which it is achieved. At the intersection of his ethics, teleology and epistemology, lies his idea that a means and its end are intrinsically related – they should be thought of as a continuum instead of two separate entities. To remove any temporal distance in a formerly dichotomous relationship, and to invert its traditional order, Dewey termed this concept as the "ends-means." What further distinguishes his idea of the "ends-means" is that it is not supposed to be conceived of as purely conceptual, but rather as something that has practical applications in the philosophy of science, art and education. Regarding the latter, he translates the concept into his belief that "the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing." That is, the means of education is exploration and the end of education is also exploration. The question for Dewey on the value of pass/fail, then, might be: does the objective that instituted the policy align with the learning process it incites?

There are many reasons to argue that it does not. One is that the division pass/fail creates compounds the overall importance of grades. If the classes students opt to pass/fail are classes in which they are permitted some kind of academic experimentation and liberation from authoritative judgement of accomplishment, what are they supposed to conclude about those classes that they cannot opt to pass/fail? The separation seems to imply that they should exercise academic restraint and fret over grades in the latter. And further, if students ought to hide away the "bad" grades, does that not underscore the importance of grades overall? Surely the uncompromising pursuit of a perfect number, which Dewey strongly disputes, is foregrounded.

Was the policy’s original aim really to ease grade anxiety and promote academic experimentation, or was it to allow for perfectibility of the GPA, perhaps to benefit a student’s job prospects?

Given its circumstances, the pass/fail policy is also more likely to induce laziness and disinterest in a course. In its present application, the policy offers students respite from letter-graded classes, which, for most students, means putting in the least amount of effort to pass as they toil over those classes where the difference between an A and a C grade is salient. When might students really choose to pass/fail classes other than when they fear receiving damaging grades? Since the pass/fail policy is implemented under a framework that harnesses letter grades as an incentive to learning, it is not mere speculation to argue that when that incentive is removed, students are likely to put in less effort and learn less. It appears that the pass/fail policy assumes the ideal student – one who behaves exactly as a policy demands they behave; it ignores psychological reality.

But even if we concur that the policy's aim of encouraging academic interest and the process of learning it correspond, it appears that this kind of short-term interest can be superficial and even dangerous. Dewey states that "to humor interests is to substitute the transient for the permanent ... [it] is to fail to penetrate below the surface, and its sure result is to substitute caprice and whim for genuine interest." To be sure, he goes on to clarify that "the need for taking account of spontaneous and uncoerced interest and activity is a genuine need," however, "without care and thought it results, all too readily, in a detached multiplicity of isolated short-time activities or projects, and the continuity necessary for growth is lost." If we adopt Dewey's views on such "capricious" interests, then not only is the process of learning that the pass/fail policy induces called into question, so too is the value of its original aim.

And then one wonders: was its original aim really to ease grade anxiety and promote academic experimentation, or was it to allow for perfectibility of the GPA, perhaps to benefit a student's job prospects? Given that the pass/fail is more likely to engender, at best, cursory interest, and at worst, total disengagement, its primary "goal" no longer makes sense. For Dewey, reflection on the means by which a policy supposedly achieves its end necessarily calls into question the value of the end itself. If we find the process of learning that arises from the pass/fail to be amiss, then its initial "goal" cannot be satisfied, nor can it really be called its actual goal. Yet again, his theory of the "ends-means" critically emerges.

It becomes clear that, in considering the means and end of the pass/fail policy, both appear precarious and fail to answer to each other. In other words, its "ends-means" is incoherent, and therefore of little value to a genuinely progressive educational philosophy. The dissonance in this relationship likely applies to other allegedly progressive educational policies, which take worthy progressive ideas on education and, in translating them into policies, oversimplify them. Dewey argues that "philosophy of education must go beyond any method of education that is formed by way of contrast, reaction and protest" – and yet many progressive educational policies today tend to favor this approach. The pass/fail policy, in particular, seems to react against the preexisting grading framework based on the GPA in such a literal way as to invalidate its original goal. This oversimplification comes from insensitivity to students' psychological capacities, which cannot be detached from their intellectual capacities. It is not enough for an educational policy to be grounded in abstract principles, it must be grounded in psychological theory and practice too. Dewey's philosophy goes beyond the common refrain "practice what you preach" - what you preach and what you practice are necessarily interdependent.

Acceptance into a good university often encourages students not necessarily to cultivate “the best version of themselves,” but to package themselves in a way that checks off various demands. Such commodification of students contravenes the basis of all of Dewey’s philosophies: democracy.

Though some might argue that regardless of whether pass/fail fulfills its initial goal, or that its "ends-means" is incoherent, it still has value for some students. It might, for example, free up time for a student to pursue other interests, or simply relax. This is highly plausible, but such a response forces us to ask – what is the point of an educational policy if not to achieve some deliberate goal? Can the goal of an educational policy be totally arbitrary if the success of that goal is irrelevant? To say that an educational policy can be valuable beyond the success of its founding objective is completely valid, but to say that a policy is worthy of implementation for that reason makes no sense. Why not, say, reduce the maximum number of credits a student can take per semester instead if the value a student can glean from the pass/fail comes from the time it frees up?

Perhaps the discrepancy in the "ends-means" of the pass/fail is symptomatic of a broader discrepancy in the "ends-means" of higher education. Given the ever-increasing price tag on attending university, it is no surprise to hear higher education repeatedly called an "investment." In fact, a statistical cottage industry has developed to attempt to evaluate its precise "worth" and answer questions like "how much more money does the average person make if they choose to go to university?" Implicit in questions like these is the idea that higher education is an expensive ticket to part two of life; it is being treated as a means to a specific end – employment. But not only might education have become a student's means to employability, students themselves might also have become both universities' and even society's means to economic success. The kinds of demands that students must meet to gain acceptance into a good university often encourage students not necessarily to cultivate "the best version of themselves," but to package themselves in a way that checks off all these demands. Such commodification of students contravenes the basis of all of Dewey's philosophies: democracy. He often sounds like the Marx of "alienated labor," and perhaps it is this economic degradation of students that made him lament “I have never been able to feel much optimism regarding the possibilities of ‘higher’ education when it is built upon warped and weak foundations.”

If there is any truth to such a conjecture, then it is no wonder that the pass/fail policy is inconsistent; it operates under a firm bedrock of inconsistencies, warped by economic pressure. When the inherent value in a student is denigrated, how can that student not denigrate the "inherent" value in their higher education or its policies?

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