Reviving the Original Purpose of Pass-FailRoundup
tags: education, higher education, student activism
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.
I get it. For the past few years, our students have been reporting skyrocketing levels of stress and anxiety about their academic status and futures. Add coronavirus, and you have the makings of a collective emotional crisis. If pass-fail will help ward that off, I’m 100 percent in favor of it.
But I also hope we can use this moment to recapture some of the initial spirit of the pass-fail option. It came out of the campus protest movements of the 1960s, which were focused not just on civil rights and the war in Vietnam but also on transforming teaching and learning. According to critics like Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the university had become a “machine” that spit out workers instead of educating citizens.
So the students took it upon themselves to reform the university, demanding instruction that engaged their passions and interests. And they took aim at the grading system, which seemed designed to inhibit both.
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