One of the articles I’ve had my students read this past semester concerns itself with the effect of grading on education and concludes that, ultimately, grading itself degrades the quality of education. Grading does so (to oversimplify) by substituting desire for the grade for desire for learning, in other words, by substituting an extrinsic motivation for an intrinsic one. Rather than learning because one values learning, knowledge, or skills, all of those things are seen as secondary to something else, something external: in the case of the classroom, grades. Of course, those grades are not really their own goal either: they are seen as keys to another extrinsic motivator, which is, of course, success (i.e., money, and the things you can do with it).
One argument typically raised by students against the premise of this article is that without the motivation of grades, students will realize they can slack off and not be penalized. Of course, that’s true only if you define “penalized” in terms of receiving a short-term negative: if you actually do value the learning and knowledge and skills, slacking off quite clearly penalizes you, in that you will not learn. But this criticism does have an element of truth, since our whole conception of effort tends to be keyed to the notion of reward. So it’s most likely true that, at first, eliminating grades (in favor of, say, comments intending to help the student improve the quality of work) might lead to some students putting in less effort, simply because they do not see any immediate penalty.
But the tension here between avoidance of short-term penalty and awareness of longer-term reward is not just a part of education; it’s a huge part – and problem – of capitalism generally. So long as you get paid, so long as you get the job, so long as you maintain the prestige necessary to ensure your continued income, the quality of the work itself simply does not matter. The usual argument is that people will recognize lower-quality work, favor higher-quality work, and penalize slackers and just-enoughers accordingly. But in fact, most people don’t care, don’t know, or can’t afford to exercise such discernment, and so the good-enough will always outshine the quality.
What’s worse, though, is the way extrinsic motivation is concomitant with an excessive emphasis on competition compared to cooperation (some readers will recognize that I’m continuing to follow the ideas of Alfie Kohn, the writer linked above). Competition is valorized as the necessary fuel for the motor of economic achievement, the essential ingredient, the lack of which (in the form of absent “incentive”) is supposed to doom attempts to interfere with the natural workings of the market (such as by a government), since people without the bracing slap in the face of competition will simply accept what they get and not work any harder. But as I suggest, competition also breeds its own species of disincentive, since the need to appeal to a mass audience (even if a demographically pinpointed mass) tends to work against a desire for improvement in quality, since that quality is irrelevant to larger numbers of that audience.
Furthermore, I think an excessive emphasis on competition is corrosive and generates cynicism, since it poisons the idea that anyone could really be out for anything but his or her own self-interest and casts a dubious eye upon claims to the contrary (see my post above on global warming and scientists). This cynicism is real, though, and has real effects, in that most people resent being misperceived, and after a while give up attempts to beat their heads against that wall of cynicism, and simply give in: yeah sure I’m only in it for the money – and those folks who say they aren’t are just liars. Furthermore, if such people actually do have money, they probably didn’t earn it: a corrosive resentment follows, both from personal frustration and as a consequence of the inability to theorize non-economic motivations within that economic system.
Status and prestige are concomitant with money and success; lacking those two elements, people are forced back upon other devices to assert their status and position. The wealthy do not generally involve themselves in drive-by shootings, because they don’t need to. Deprive a person of all the means of achieving respect and status, except for brute force, and don’t be surprised if brute force is what the person uses.
(One irony on the whole emphasis on competition: it downplays the fact that cooperation is equally essential, even within a capitalist system. The chief economic actor these days is, in fact, the corporation: that is, a cooperative endeavor that exists because people realize it’s more effective and more efficient to cooperate to earn money than for every individual to do so. Corporations themselves go on and on about “teamwork” (even when that’s just a code word for “do as I say”), and even the elite tend to educate their children in classrooms, not solely with individual tutors.)