Myodicy, Issue 18, May 2003

No Place for Grace?
Some Thoughts
on Academic Credits
and Grades

by Theodore Plantinga

Protestant thought has long reflected on the difficult or problematic relationship between law and gospel, or perhaps between law and grace. It is especially in the Calvinistic branch of Protestantism that efforts are made to unify these two -- or at least to avoid any appearance of tension between them. On the one hand, Calvinists are believers in law and take a keen interest in the Old Testament, but on the other hand, they emphasize the notion of God's free and sovereign grace. Especially during the latter part of October, when we see Reformation Day approaching, we make much of the various "solas" that we take to be thematic of the Reformation: "sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia." In other words: by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. What we mean when we affirm "sola gratia" is that our salvation is not grounded in, or earned by, good works that we might perform, even though good works, undertaken in faith and performed in accordance with the law of God, form a very an important part of our Christian life.

What might the tension between law and grace have to do with teaching in a Christian, or more specifically, a Calvinistic, institution? I recently had occasion to consider this question in a new light. To introduce my reflections on this matter, I will pass on a small story which led me to think about this issue anew.

One day Emma (not her real name) came to my office and explained why she had not turned in her term paper the night before, when it was due. By itself, such a visit from a student is not at all unusual. She explained that she was busily working on the paper when there were only a few hours left before the deadline (my papers are due at midnight). Then an emergency descended upon her. Emma is in the part-time employ of the college, and so she was obliged to drop her own work and to attend to the emergency. As a result she did not get her paper finished by midnight, as she was supposed to have done. (I am not on campus at midnight, but I allow a paper to be submitted to a college employee, provided it is accompanied by a written and signed declaration in which the employee vouches for the deadline's having been met.) And so her question was: could she have an extension in view of the circumstances?

My response was simply to reiterate to her my policy about such matters, which she already possessed in writing as part of the course materials, namely, that any student may have an extension without even asking for it, but that there is a small price to pay, namely, one notch on the grade scale for every two days of tardiness. At Redeemer grades run from A+ all the way down to F, and so a B paper that is turned in two days late gets recorded in my grade book as a B- paper. And so I explained to Emma that this policy would apply to her case as well.

Emma couldn't believe it: she was amazed that I would apply my policy to her. She stood there for quite some time with a winning smile on her face as we talked around and around the issue. Finally she gave up and left my office. And that was the end of that -- or so I thought.

Two days later I had a visitor: Margo (not her real name), a friend of mine and a staff member at the college. Margo had come to intercede for Emma and to explain why it was that Emma's paper had to come in late. We went over the same old ground, and I reiterated my policy. But Margo was incredulous.

I will not rehash our discussion here, except to say that Margo brought up one line of argument that made me uneasy and led me to reflect. The discussion we had that day was quite interesting and led me to the conclusion that I should share the issue (and her line of argument) with a broader public via this small essay.

Margo asked me: what about grace? Isn't this a Christian institution?

I must admit that I was not altogether prepared for the question. I'm afraid the answer I gave hardly satisfied her. And so she pressed her point by demanding to know under what circumstances I would be willing to grant "grace" to someone in some such situation. I declined to be specific, explaining that to stipulate such circumstances was tantamount to establishing a very elaborate policy under which extensions without academic penalty will be granted. Eventually Margo also gave up the quest and departed, leaving me feeling like Professor Scrooge.

I had trouble getting back to the work in which I had been busily engaged before Margo's visit. The paradox in this situation would not leave me alone. Here we were in a Calvinistic institution, in which the Calvinistic theology of God's free grace shown to the sinner who does not merit salvation is officially taught. Yet everyone knows that Calvinists are also famous for their "work ethic." Indeed, if you watch Calvinists close-up, you almost get the impression that they are busy earning their salvation through their industriousness and self-discipline. Max Weber would have understood my perplexity: see his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in German in 1905).

So there was a certain logic to Margo's question: shouldn't a Calvinistic institution prove its Calvinistic character by being quite free in dispensing "grace"? I wanted to say no. In my mind I reviewed the arguments I had placed before her and also thought of some more. Some of the considerations I appealed to in support of my stance are not of a theological or philosophical nature, but they nevertheless merit brief mention here.

A first type of argument that came to mind was pragmatic in nature. In other words, just how would one go about judging and adjudicating such requests for extensions and special allowances? Would it be feasible to grant them all, on the grounds that everyone is special? And where would one find the time to listen to all the recitations that would accompany requests for special treatment? It might sound like basically the same old thing over and over ("The dog ate my homework"), but every student could come up with a special slant on his woes.

One might reply that not everyone would make such a plea. The old saying "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" come to mind. But are we in the business of trying to encourage all students to undertake "squeaky wheel" behavior? I surely hope not.

Suppose all requests were granted. Then the business of handing out extensions would not have to take up all that much time. Perhaps we could operate like those lending agencies that promise a loan no matter how bad the applicant's credit history is.

In following such a policy, we would be offering an incentive to students to make up tales of woe. But would we really wish to grant extensions for tales of purely imaginary woe? Presumably not. And so one would be obliged to check out the validity of the various stories that were presented.

Now, Margo had assured me of the veracity of Emma's tale and also vouched for her personal integrity. Moreover, I had seen some independent evidence to the effect that her story was genuine. And so I assured Margo the that the historicity of the emergency was not the issue.

There are also some educational issues to be mentioned when considering such situations. I told Margo that I was treating Emma just the way I would wish a professor at the University of Colorado, where my daughter Abigail is currently enrolled as an undergraduate, to treat her. (Abigail, however, is not likely to be in such a situation as Emma's: she is quick to characterize such pleading as "whining," which is to be avoided at all costs.)

In other words, there is an educational rationale behind maintaining well-defined and even-handed policies regarding grades and assignments. Emma, I would argue, was enrolled in my class not just to learn philosophy but also to learn self-discipline. And so I would maintain that to put off the completion of one's term paper to almost the last moment, or at least the last couple of hours, is to run a risk. It's like not leaving enough time to get to the airport: one is then assuming that there will be no traffic slowdown along the way. If it turns out that there is some traffic congestion, the price for taking the risk may be that you miss your flight. Similarly, if one assumes that will be no computer glitches at the last moment when preparing a term paper, one is running a risk, and one needs to learn that sometimes there is a price to be paid for taking such a risk.

Moreover, a factor in Emma's situation was inadequate attention to saving and backing up one's computer file. Without going into the details of Emma's story, I should reveal that part of her problem was that she had not been diligent in this regard, and so she lost some of her work at the time of the emergency. Anyway, I explained to Margo that I regarded the Emma episode as an opportunity for a young lady to learn something non-academic. Moreover, I explained that Emma had learned her lesson at a rather low cost -- cheap tuition indeed! And Emma is a very good student -- hardly in danger of getting poor marks.

Despite these arguments that had come to mind, Margo's question about "grace" left me feeling uncomfortable. I suppose I was uneasy because I sensed that there is a difficult theological and philosophical issue in the background -- one that is not easy to deal with. And the issue has to do with whether we are dispensers of grace.

Margo seemed to think that we are: it was evident from what she said that any act of generosity which a human being might undertake, such as forgiving someone, would count as exercising or giving grace. And it seemed obvious to her that we, as Christians, are in the business of dispensing grace. On a practical, everyday level, it would be hard to disagree with her.

But still I hesitate. One reason for my hesitation is that I am somewhat uncomfortable with applying the term "create" to human endeavors. I teach the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which means creation out of nothing. Such creation is proper only to God. I am willing to describe human beings as "creative" and would like to think that even I possess some creativity; yet in theoretical terms I place human creative endeavors in a category that is logically distinct from what God did in bringing the universe into being. Some women claim to bake cakes "from scratch," but I reserve this power for God alone. The rest of us use pre-existent materials and patterns and ideas when we bring something into being -- even the women who scoff at cake mixes and recipes.

Now, God is commonly described not only as Creator but also as Redeemer. I'm reminded of this nomenclature constantly since the institution in which I teach is officially known as Redeemer University College. Of course everyone knows that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer. It is part of our theology that no other mediator -- no other sacrificial atonement, for that matter -- would have sufficed to wipe the slate clean and clear us of our guilt before God. The obvious implication is that the activity that we call "redemption" is, in the strictest sense of the term, proper only to Christ.

But in the circles in which I move, some people speak quite freely of "redemption" in connection with what we as human beings do: not only do we "transform" culture, we also "redeem" elements of it, such as dancing and cinema. And so it's a little bit like the creation issue. Do we also create -- or does only God create? Are we in the business of redeeming -- or is Jesus Christ the only Redeemer? My inclination is to say that only Christ redeems and that only God creates.

But my reluctance to follow Margo's advice -- even if I would set aside the theological and philosophical question for a moment -- also had something to do with the issue whether academic credits are mine to dispense as though I were Lady Bountiful. Some people encourage us to engage in "random acts of kindness." It's an intriguing notion, and the academic version might involve giving an A+ to a student who has never had one before and has done nothing to deserve one. Would we therefore be emulating the God of grace?

And then there is the existence of honorary degrees to be considered. I could tell another story, or perhaps a set of stories, about the tendency on the part of some students to confuse earned degrees and credits with honorary degrees. Sometimes a student will inform me that he (or she) has been unable to attend very many classes this term and has not devoted as much time to the course as was originally intended because of such-and-such circumstances that have come up. Normally I am treated to a lengthy recitation of those circumstances. Sometimes I am impressed by the worthy work that the student in question is doing; there may well be a commendable self-sacrificial aspect to the activities that are distracting the student from my course. But at the end the question is asked, usually somewhat indirectly: in the light of these worthy deeds of mine, don't you think you should give me a break in the course or excuse me from such-and-such requirements?

I generally respond by explaining the distinction between earned and honorary university degrees. Earned degrees are exactly that: you get credit for work done, for learning accomplished, as measured by the officers of the university. Some years later, after you have distinguished yourself in the world and done much good, some fine institution, perhaps Oxford University, will take note of your good work and give you the recognition you deserve in the form of an honorary Doctor of Letters degree, or something of that sort. And at that time I will applaud you as your former philosophy instructor. But in the meantime, you are enrolled at Redeemer, where we offer only earned degrees. Those degrees are not based on moral worth.

I don't normally take my explanation much further than this, but I suppose I could say that it is entirely conceivable for a person of very low moral worth to wind up with a much, much better grade in a course of mine than an exemplary Christian who is a self-denying person, consistently putting others ahead of himself and not devoting much time to his own course work and learning and personal development. I may regret the need to reward the person of low moral worth with a fine grade, but I don't believe I have much choice in the matter. Grades are not ultimately a matter of grace.

There is, of course, one parable in the Bible to which people might appeal in arguing against such policies as I am here articulating. It is the parable in Matthew 20 about the workers who were called to the vineyard at all different times throughout the day, with the result that some worked a long day, some a half-day, and some only an hour or so. But they all received the same wage from the master. On reading this parable, one is inclined to protest: No fair! And so it is at least conceivable that one might wish to apply this parable directly to the granting of grades and credits in university classrooms. I have never seen a formal argument to that effect, but it does at least occur to me as an interesting possibility.

Instructors in accredited institutions do not only teach, or make learning available to the students: they also certify that learning has taken place. They do so by awarding course credits which eventually translate into university degrees, and also by assigning grades, which become quite a factor in scholarship eligibility, wider opportunities for study, efforts to find employment, and so forth. When I dispense credits and grades, I need to do so not just in my own name but in the name of the institution that has appointed me for this task. And so it seems to me that I'm freer to pull money out of my pocket -- my own money -- and give it to anyone on whom I may take compassion than I am to dispense Redeemer credits and grades.

Yet I am somewhat haunted by the thought that perhaps I am being miserly where God is generous. Does grace really amount to generosity? And if our theology glories in God's free grace, his sovereign good pleasure, should we emulate the almost arbitrary character of his bestowal of grace? This is in effect to ask whether God plays favorites. Is something akin to "favoritism" built into the Calvinistic understanding of election? "Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated" (see Malachi 1:2-3 and Romans 9:13).

Instructors in Christian institutions do not enjoy the freedom to play favorites. It is emphasized that they must be fair to all students. Part of this fairness is treating all students alike: therefore no special favors are to be dispensed to this person or that one. Sometimes it's difficult to be fair and objective: I well recall a time when I had my own son enrolled in my philosophy class.

All of this is not to say that Margo's request on Emma's behalf could not possibly be translated into a policy change. It is at least logically conceivable that under the exact circumstances of Emma's case, any student would be entitled to an extension without any sort of academic penalty. If such a policy were enacted, the exception in question would be open to any student who found himself in those exact circumstances. In the interests of fairness, a host of roughly similar exemptions would be needed, with the qualifying circumstances carefully spelled out in each case. But at least the principle of equal treatment would be preserved. Yet I am loath to move in such a direction.

And so, despite Margo's plea, I cling to the sentiment that the rules have to apply to everyone. There are some students who are quick to take advantage of any kind of opening you give them in terms of relaxing rules and requirements. A familiar expression comes to mind here -- not one that Margo used, but I did think of it while I was talking with her, namely "getting away with murder." I found myself wondering, although I did not say it to Margo, that if we did not have strict rules, wouldn't some students, in effect, get away with murder? Of course "murder" is a very strong word, and nobody would like to see people getting away with murder, strictly understood. And yet, as the murder motif ran through my mind, I could not help but think that God, in his grace, does invite us to get away with murder. Indeed, he allows us to get away with hosts of horrible misdeeds. Grace is for sinners, not for people who have never done wrong. And so, if God is so free in offering forgiveness and grace, why can't we also be free? Why can't we let students get away with murder and still suffer no academic penalty?

Another way to pose the issue, I suppose, is to mention the familiar initials which some people now have on bracelets: W.W.J.D. What would Jesus do? There are even people who ask: what would Jesus drive, that is, what kind of car? I am inclined to reject such argumentation as illegitimate. After all, I am not Jesus. And I would point to a line of argument in Calvinistic theology that emphasizes that Jesus came to earth for a specific task, which task some identify with the notion of "office." That task, of course, was to serve as the Redeemer. It was a calling that carried with it a certain authority and mandate. In virtue of that calling and mandate, Jesus wound up doing things that I would not feel free to do. I do not chase money-changers (or fund-raisers) out of the temple. Of course, to make this point is not to deny that a Christian ought to have what the Bible calls "the mind of Christ", and so for me it is not an issue of how Jesus would treat such a student if he were the instructor being faced with Emma's request for an exemption from the rules.

And so, as I come to the end of this reflection, I don't have a convincing answer to Margo's question. I would like to abolish the tension between law and grace, but I am well aware that the main effect of this essay is to draw attention to it. Yet, if I have heightened your awareness of a paradox or tension within Calvinistic thinking, my time has been well spent. I know I have not succeeded in abolishing the tension. I am reconciled to living with it. Because I am forgiven so freely by God in his grace, I am quite willing to live a self-disciplined life in which I take responsibility for my own misdeeds and also accept penalties on occasion for failing to do things I should have done.

What I fear in terms of everyday life in Christian institutions is that the assigning of grades could all too easily turn into a Middle Eastern bazaar in which the idea and expectation is that one haggles over these things. And so every grade given for a significant piece of work, such as a test or a paper or an essay, would become an opportunity for hard bargaining between teacher and student. Before long we would be assigning a somewhat lower grade than we think a piece of work deserves because we're aware that we will be forced to pump up the grade when the haggling begins: we dread the sound of all those squeaky wheels. Bear in mind that we live in an age of grade inflation, and part of the reason for the grade inflation is the willingness of some students -- not all, I would emphasize -- to beg for higher grades. It's not a pretty prospect.

In conclusion I should emphasize that the little episode that launched this reflection is not something that happens only once in an academic year. The simple truth is that it is not unusual for a student to beg for a higher grade on an assignment or to ask for special consideration. Students sometimes inform me that they have to have a grade of such-and-such in my course because unless they get it, they will not be able to bring their cumulative grade point average to a high enough level to graduate. Sometimes some other requirement, perhaps related to a scholarship, is brought into the picture. I regard such appeals as illegitimate, although I do not normally tell students that this is my view of what they're doing. I have come to recognize that it's simply a part of life in colleges and universities nowadays.

To have a fellow staff member or faculty member make an appeal for grades on a student's behalf is somewhat more unusual. (One tends to associate such appeals with the athletic end of an institution: this case has nothing to do with athletes or athletic eligibility requirements.) I should add that Margo approached me without Emma's knowledge or consent. She just thought that Emma was a deserving young lady who was being disadvantaged through circumstances that were not of own doing. All of this I accepted as true. But my response was that we need to be ready for a bump in the road or a slowdown or even a flat tire on occasion.

I didn't think of it at the time, but perhaps the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins could be brought to bear on this issue (see Matthew 25). I suspect that the wise ones would not have been feverishly typing their term papers just hours before the deadline for submission. [END]

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