Saturday, 20 August 2011

On Grade Redistribution and FoxNews

This article: "College Students in Favor of Wealth Distribution Are Asked to Pass Their Grade Points to Other Students" seems to be generating far more discussion than it should. The article is about a student, Oliver Darcy, who is proposing that students with high GPAs contribute their GPA to students who are struggling. Of course, most people find the suggestion absurd. I believe that the way the argument is supposed to works is that since it's absurd to consider redistributing the grades that we earned it follows that it's also absurd to share the money we've earned.

But the problem is that he's making a category error. The absurdity of the grade redistribution suggestion doesn't lie in the fact that it's absurd to redress inequities, it resides in the fact that it's conceptually incoherent to "redistribute" a metric to something that the metric doesn't actually measure. A grade is a measure of the quality of work that an agent has done, it's meaningless to ask someone to share part of that metric with someone else who hasn't done that work.  It would be like asking someone who is 6'5" to give some of the 6'5" measurement to people who are 5'6" or like finding out that my car got 50 mpg on the way to work this morning and then asking me to share some of that number with people who drive less fuel efficient cars. In both cases we don't even understand what it would mean to assent to such a "redistribution". I can't share the metric, or the value of the metric in some particular instance, as a metric is not a resource. Of course, I can, in some instances, share the things that the metric measured or that which caused the metric to register a high value. I could devote some time to helping struggling students, I could offer a ride to work to people who own gas-gazzling cars, those are coherent suggestions. If Darcy had gone around campus asking gifted students to offer time to help struggling students so that they might improve their grades, that wouldn't have struck anyone as absurd since it doesn't involve a fundamental category error.  Of course, then he would have missed his chance to be on FoxNews. 

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