Grating Grades

By JESSICA GE


Grades. Grades. Grades. Grades are commonly recognized as a symbol of the apparent success of a student. This is no foreign concept to the students at The University of Tokyo, who have braced through its highly competitive entrance exam and hours and hours of study at home and at cram school. However, what kind of students does this education system produce? The sight of students stressing about these numerical figures is no rare sight, but why is it so? The following is a personal account from a student looking back on her schooling life, examining what kind of life she has led, and what kind of life she wants to lead from now on.

A Todai student hard at work. Photo by author.

Good grades do not equal smartness. Thus in the same sense, bad grades do not equal stupidity.

Perhaps you recognize one of Albert Einstein’s well-known quotes: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Parents raise their children telling them to be their own person, to find their own purpose in the world, and that is okay to be different and unique. Yet the education system, which plays an influential role in at least the first 18 years of their lives, encourages the homogenisation of their abilities under the excuse that only in this one way can everyone be judged fairly. But it is far from fair. It is undeniable that smartness can be measured in a variety of ways. Some people are street smart, some have a keen sense of direction, some are really good at solving visual puzzles, others better with audio stimulus. Of the broad number of people we encounter each day, their skills and abilities are even broader. In that sense, how can a simple number properly represent the intelligence of a person?

Self-advertisement paper. Photo by author.

Students are taught to study, but not learn.

In the process of being forced to adapt to this standardised assessment scale, students are taught how to study for a certain test rather than learning and retaining the information it is supposed to test. What the majority of students get out of school are an improved short term memory bank, fast essay writing skills, and an irregular sleeping schedule. This is further reinforced in Japan with its cram schools that are specifically targeted towards raising grades. Cram schools, or juku, are special private institutes that offer lessons after normal school hours, on weekends, and during school vacations. As the name suggests, a lot of time is dedicated towards studying, yet it is purely focused on increasing their numerical grades, and not on the quality of education or the application of critical thinking. Are students studying to gain deeper knowledge about their subjects or are they studying to pass?

Job hunting uniform. Photo by author.

Grades should not define who you are as a person.


Humans are not quantitative data. To reduce a person to a simple number is to take away their individuality. Yet so much of the world evaluates people based on their numbers. Throughout our schooling we are conditioned into thinking that grades are everything. We compress our three-dimensional self into a two-dimensional number. Japan’s strict resume format illustrates this two-dimensional compression. A number of lines are provided to list education and employment history with no room for further elaboration; only a small section is provided for the applicant to describe who they are as a person. How can workplaces tell the difference between one applicant and another when all they have is a sheet of paper almost identical to the hundreds that came before? A number of students at The University of Tokyo begin shuukatsu (job hunting) once they reach their senior year. Many hope to be the one to stand out and win a good position at a company. However, their identical black suits and white dress shirts do little to set them apart. It is clear to see that plain numbers and letters on a sheet of paper do little to capture the complexity of humans.

From a young age we are told that we have to go to a good university to get a good job to live a good life. We get into these institutions by achieving a certain grade, so we study hard to raise those figures. We are told that the higher the grade, the higher the guarantee of success. But there is no guarantee. So why do we cling onto the idea that grades are so important? Why do we let our lives revolve around these plain numerical figures? Perhaps it is time to reconsider the weight we place on this aspect of our life. Perhaps it is time to focus on the quality of our life, rather than the quantities within it.

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