Columns

Scott Lowenstein ’10: A is for ‘about’

Measuring modern life, more or less

As a generally neurotic person, I tend to assign significance to all observations, no matter how insignificant. A stray mark on a graded paper obviously means it was well written, and a muffled clearing of a class member’s throat is an undeniable sign of disapproval. In a sense, this absurd noticing of things is what interests me in politics, where the smallest word choice can make all of the difference (hence, we hear about the “Recovery Act” from Democrats and an “unprecedented bailout” from the Republicans).

But as I move on to my first real job, in political polling and strategy, I hope that what I call “neurotic” becomes “observant.” Clearly, I’m already on my way.

There’s just one little thing that I often fail to notice: People make mistakes — in action and observation. Sometimes a cough is just a cough, just as a one-point lead in a poll could be the result of a few poorly timed trips to the grocery store. This “give” — a margin of error — is too often overlooked at Brown, as elsewhere. But for all the shortcomings, I have learned at Brown to appreciate little things for what they are — maybe significant, maybe not.Take Brown’s grading policy. My friends from just about every other school look at me in disbelief when I describe the University’s philosophy about grades. How can grading possibly be fair when there are so few distinctions? To which I respond: How can a grading policy be fair with such fine gradation? How much difference is there really between an A-minus and an A, and why should that difference matter? An A means I did a great job in a class; a B a good job; a C, not so good. (We don’t talk about No Credit.)
As I finish Brown, I have a much better idea about what a good versus a great job means — it is a distinction that allows for a margin of error. It replaces the anxiety and competitiveness with a much healthier attitude about what grades should be: a general assessment of how I did in a class.

The no-pluses-and-minuses policy is emblematic of a broader philosophy at Brown that understands students can learn best when we are allowed some wiggle room. It is part of the ethos here for professors to keep students in mind when designing their coursework and undergraduate education. Even in my classes in economics, a discipline where the prevailing attitude about causation can be elucidated by the recent financial crisis, professors have stressed thinking critically about what a statistical result means in a complex world with imperfections.

At Brown, we are proud of our adversity through slight misdirection. We appreciate margin of error. I hope to take this lesson with me to the world of politics, and remember that the other guy’s supporters go to the grocery store as much as my guy’s do (unless, of course, my candidate is winning by a point).

Scott Lowenstein ’10, from Binghamton, N.Y., was senior editor of The Herald in 2009.