Law in Contemporary Society

The Curve doesn’t Kill People; People Confusing Grades with Personal Worth Kills People.

-- EldonWright - 19 Apr 2009

originally By ScottThurman? - 26 Feb 2009

We’ve reached a stage in our academic lives where the vast majority of us are, for possibly the first time, working toward something other than yet another degree. Just like every stage before it, however, there remains a need to differentiate between the relative achievement of the student body.. The necessity of achieving high grades in seeking employment does not seem much different than the route from high school to college, or that from undergrad to law school. The term achievement is intended to encompass not the internal level of understanding of a given subject, but rather the need for some manner in which to express this newfound competence. At this juncture it seems petty to suddenly quibble with a system that, judging from your current locale, you have apparently taken full advantage of.

  • Not grammatical or comprehensible. Perhaps if you had tried to say it simply you'd have encountered an intellectual issue rather than a grammatical snare.

Practical Imperfection

A lifetime of education broken down into numbers, percentages, and ranks can never stake a claim to telling the full story about an individual’s worth. A grade cannot reveal all that any individual student actually knows, can know, or can do. More arbitrarily, and more personally, grades correspond to a set of individual, if not controllable, characteristics: our capacities for memorization and oral and verbal retention, the speed with which our synapses make connections, our physical reactions to stress. This appears well and proper, as we long ago outgrew the need for everyone to “win” a medal or for spelling tests to have gold stars and exclamatory statements with appropriately animated punctuation. A grade in a law school class, after all, unequivocally says something about an individual’s academic abilities, whether this statement is imperfect or incomplete. While the medium for the expression of ability may be lacking, the student who can do the most within this possibly inadequate framework expresses a great deal about his or her ability to adapt. For instance, the last minute cramming of the “natural test taker” may show an aptitude for figuring out that the quickest distance between law school and a firm job is a straight line.

Misplaced Frustration

The ultimate goal of your achievement at each stage of your educational development has largely been to successfully navigate a transition to the “best” available higher institution on your charted course. In order to determine what locale corresponds to your aptitude, ability, and skills, it would seem distinguishing factors are necessary. Columbia’s curve isn’t perfect. Certainly in the context of a high-pressure, highly artificial three-hour exam, neither is the grading. A curve, however, simply “sets marginal limits on the brackets within which one reports each student's position on an absolute ranking of performance. A curve with limits as elastic as ours has very little effect on the distribution of grades overall.” (Moglen, Comments on First Draft).

Given the unlikelihood of the form of testing being drastically altered, administrators and professors would be hard-pressed to enact a significant degree of change on the curve. I suppose a uniform benchmark professors must conform to isn’t necessary, but surely it’s better than rampant uncertainty and massive numbers of students attempting to switch between classes based on unsubstantiated rumors of what professor is “easy.” (The switching danger is averted during the 2 and 3L years since coursework may at least be individually tailored.) With the curve in place, the performance measured still speaks to a level of fluidity with the material, whether it is relative to another’s performance or not. After all, a letter grade is meaningless unless there are other grades, judged against the same scale, doled out to everyone participating in the process.

Grades, the Curve, and the Self

Of the curve, it has been said the mythological structure of American society enlarges this singular performance into a categorical evaluation of one’s self: you are better or worse. This cannot be true. If find yourself being sucked into judging yourself to be “better or worse” than people with differing grades than your own, it may well be that you are an individual given to predicating your self-worth on external markers as it is. Balance is key, and in the future you should strive not become someone to whom the term “the law is a jealous mistress” aptly applies, just as you would do well to avoid living vicariously through your son, regardless of his uncanny knack for picking out a receiver downfield.

If your only relationship to the other students in your class is limited to that class alone, it would appear that you may well be setting yourself up for comparisons premised merely on classroom contribution, and ultimately grades. This could be down to your own failure to take advantage of the available forms of interaction, or it could be a more systemic flaw of law school not providing a varied enough array of mixers. Now, if you have taken the time to establish relationships with your peers at social engagements, on sports fields, and over beers, and you still see yourself as one letter grade sitting next to their letter grade, this speaks more to a deficiency in your personal worldview than anything related to Columbia, law school, or the education system more generally.


Given our current role as devoted fulltime students, much of what we are working towards achieving is to some degree wrapped up in these grades we receive. Abolishing the grading system or flattening the curve would likely force students to find other ways to individualize themselves. Students’ legal education would risk becoming overwhelmed with volunteering, resume filler, and empty activities as they sought a means to separate themselves from their peers. As it stands, there are a limited number of jobs students normally seek, and there exists a rational desire for both sides of the equation to distinguish between candidates.

In terms of sheer academic development, it is certainly true that other forms of grading and other forms of testing may allow for better feedback, and ultimately academic growth. I find it hard to believe, however, that this prospect actually arouses much interest in the average law student, however grand it may at first appear. Separate from pure academic learning, as long as average law students remain career driven realists without need or want for extra bullshit, and employers remain concerned above all else with covering their bottom line: the curve retains its utility.

  • I think the edit sacrifices clarity in order to avoid issues raised by the much more unambiguous first draft. You do feel free, on the other hand, to depart from the original draft by hortatory engagement with the reader. It's not clear why you think exhortation is reliable: my own experience, as you will have noticed, is that there is no point whatever in exhorting law students to consult their psychic and intellectual interests by demanding the end of grades.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:31:48 - IanSullivan
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