How Much Should You Care about Grades?

I recently received an email that set me to thinking. A student wrote to ask, “How much should one care about school grades or other external assessments of performance?” At first I thought that answering it would require a sentence or two; perhaps a paragraph at best. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the complexities of the issue. Here then is my analysis:

How much do you care about others’ opinions of you?
This is the starting point for the discussion. We all know that we should be guided by an inner light, a drummer whose beat only we can hear. We should follow our internal moral compass. George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” We are individuals; our greatest achievements come from inside ourselves.

That certainly sounds noble. However, consider this: how much of your existence depends on other people? Do you grow your own food? If so, did you make your own seeds? Manufacture your own garden implements? Did you raise your own cotton, pick the bolls, extract the cotton, spin it into thread, weave it into cloth, and sew your own clothes together? With a needle you made?

Obviously, there is almost nothing in your life that is the product of your own direct efforts. Almost everything that makes your life comes from other people. You are totally dependent upon the efforts of millions of people making all the things that you need or desire. You can’t just tell them all to go to hell; you will literally starve to death.

So, yes, you really should care about others’ opinions of you, at least to the extent that you can convince them to give you the stuff you want. In our society, you get that by earning money. That takes a job. To get a job, you have to get at least one person to have a high opinion of you: your employer. Once you get to work, it will also be very useful for your co-workers to have a high opinion of you. 

The only exception to this rule comes when you have enough money to tell everybody else to go jump in the lake. That seldom happens until late in life. Thus, you’re just going to have to inculcate the good regard of others. 

How do you gain respect?
How then are you to convince other people that you are a good and worthy person, a person deserving of respect and (more important) money? The best way is to do something remarkable, something unique, something that demonstrates your great intellectual, moral, or creative talent. There are two problems with this strategy: first, you don’t have much in the way of intellectual, moral, or creative talent. You’re still young! You still have to develop those talents to get them up to full speed. You might not hit your full stride until your thirties or even your forties. Second, do you really think that a youngster like you has much of a chance of creating the next Google, FaceBook, Mona Lisa, or Chorale Symphony? Nope, you need some other strategy.

That strategy has already been designed and laid out for you: it’s called school. You jump through lots of hoops, and each time, your school record gets a little better. Good perfomance in lower grades gives you access to higher grades, all the way up to a PhD. Whatever degree you earn, you’ll have a piece of paper that will impress employers. That degree will open doors that are closed to others. 

Thus, your path seems obvious: go to school, study hard, get good grades, get the best degree you can, and then use that degree to get a good job. Work hard in your job for 40 years, getting promotions along the way, until you can retire with enough money to do whatever it is that you really WANT to do. 

This is the path that millions of people tread. It’s well-worn and it works beautifully. It has many side paths that give you considerable freedom in the precise path you take. As a way to organize society, I think it’s very effective. The changes I would make if I were king would be a matter of adjustments, not revolutions.

Are you average?
This system works beautifully for most people. And most people are normal. They’re at the mean: average height, average weight, average intelligence, average creativity, average everything. If you are average, then I think you should follow this path; it has undergone centuries of testing and tuning for millions and millions of people and it’s damn good.

The only weakness in this system is that it’s not so good for people who aren’t average. If you’re especially stupid, school doesn’t work. In the USA you’re called a “special needs student” and you are given special treatment to help you along. 

What if you’re better than average?
If you’re better than average in intellect or creativity, the system will not serve you well; in fact, the further you are from average, the worse the system will serve you. The educational system is a human creation, and as such it is necessarily flawed. It works best for the greatest number of people, but if you’re atypical, then it can’t handly you as well. Fortunately, many teachers recognize the brilliant oddball student and take special measures to get that student through the mill. That’s the only thing that got me through college. In one case, a professor gave me an A when my test scores earned only a C, because I had been the most active student in class, questioning him every time he said something that didn’t make sense to me — and I even caught him in a mistake once. Unfortunately, there are also lots of teachers who don’t care about brilliant oddball students. Much depends upon simple luck: if you get the right teachers, you’ll do fine. If you get the wrong teachers, you’re screwed. 

My own solution was to take my chances with the system, but to keep it at arm’s length. I did just enough work to get decent grades. I made no attempt to get perfect grades, because the only way to get perfect grades is to work night and day to the detriment of your education. As Mark Twain wrote, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” That sums it up perfectly: do as well as you can with your schooling, but keep up your education, too. 

For example, while I was in grad school, I took a course in meteorology, solely because I was curious about how weather works. It turned out that one of the other students in the course was a woman who had been in one of Teaching Assistant classes in physics. She had gotten an A in that course, and she got an A in the meteorology course. Me, I only got a B. But I spent hours with the meteorology professor peppering him with questions and I really learned the subject. The tests were about nitpicky details, not the core ideas — you can’t really test a student’s grasp of core ideas. My guess is that the lady with the A promptly forgot all the stuff she had crammed into her head; I still vividly recall some of the most important ideas as they were presented by the professor. She got a better grade, and I got a better education.

I love to read, and I had a simple trick that served me well: I often read one class ahead of my schedule. If I knew I would be taking quantum physics soon, I’d read what I could about quantum physics. I didn’t read textbooks — textbooks are for test-makers. I read the interesting parts of the subject, so that I could place all the drudgery in context. Schroedinger’s equation makes a lot more sense AFTER you’re read about Schroedinger’s cat. This also give me an overview of the subject that enabled me to ask penetrating questions during the course, questions that greatly helped me understand the fine points. 

But I didn’t confine myself to reading about coursework. I would wander through the aisles of the library, pulling out an odd book every now and then, examining the table of contents. If the book seemed interesting I plopped down right there and started perusing the book. Sometimes I would lose myself in the book and be thrown out of the library at closing time. Sometimes I’d close it after three minutes. I found out all sorts of interesting things that way.

Here’s another tactic: when you’re working on something simple and obvious for a class, surprise the teacher by going far beyond the course. Sometimes in my physics courses I would be so insulted by stupid homework problems that I’d spend hours devising a wildly creative, utterly crazy solution that, despite its weirdness, was still correct. I remember using Le Chatlier’s Principle once to solve a problem in dynamics. In the final exam for a quatum mechanics course, I was challenged to come up with a good question and answer it. Everybody else taking the test simply pulled one of the homework problems out of their memories and solved it. I refused to do the obvious. Instead, I asked the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and answered it by saying that the chicken never actually crossed the road; his wave function permitted the possibility that we might observe him on one side of the road at one moment, then on the other side of the road a moment later. I even calculated the probability of such an event. I got an A for that course, too.

Sometimes I went too far and failed. For a biology course, I refused to do the genetics experiment with fruit flies like everybody else. Instead, I did experiments with seeds I had gathered from a local species of weed. It didn’t work. The teacher was understanding, but I didn’t get an A. 

Above all, do educational things that are outside the realm of your coursework. All through my undergraduate years I worked on a project about meteors. It never got anywhere, but I picked up some ideas that later helped me for my master’s thesis, and even later I earned a seat on a NASA airborne research mission because of my work on meteors. I started working on that problem in high school in 1967 and finally solved it in 2011. Sometimes you just gotta be patient. 

The Unity of All Things
The fundamental truth here was best expressed by Galileo: “You can see the entire universe in a glass of wine.” (I got that quote from Dr. Greider, one of my undergraduate physics professors with whom I spent a lot of time.) What Galileo meant was that the physical processes taking place in a glass of wine show up everywhere in the universe. Many of those processes can be horridly confusing in one field yet blindingly obvious in another field. My biggest advantage over the years has been the breadth of my education. I can claim some expertise in physics, geopolitics, energy and environmental issues, nuclear reactor technology, climate science, meteors, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, astronomy, computer programming, geology, the Arthurian legends, evolution in general and human evolution in particular, linguistics, history in general and some aspects of history in particular, such as military history and the history of science, and even a little anatomy and physiology. I can design and build electronic circuits; I can design, build, and repair plumbing, repair motorcycle and Volkswagen engines, and fell a tree with a chainsaw pretty accurately. 

All this knowledge produces a kind of network effect. A system that enjoys a network effect gains power in geometric proportion to its size; as a network grows larger, it gets exponentially better. Knowledge works the same way. I’ve gotten so many ideas crammed into my head that they’re all miscegenating, breeding lots of new ideas. I can barely find the time to write them all down.

So I recommend that you follow the path laid out for you in school, and that you devote sufficient energy to your schooling to rise as far as you wish. (I was urged to continue to get the PhD, but I decided that I did not want the intellectually crabbed life of a professional physicist.) But don’t expend so much effort that you close your eyes to the world around you. Read omnivorously, but don’t force yourself to read what doesn’t interest. You should read only those things that interest you, and you should seek far and wide for the things that might interest you. You might want to look at my list of The Greatest Books for some inspiration. 

I wish you the best of luck. Education is a wildly exciting journey. Don’t ever stop learning.