If you ask Brown students why they like their school, chances are the S/NC option and related academic freedom will be within the top five reasons. In fact, it’s this lack of emphasis on grades — and the complete nonexistence of GPA — that draws so many of us to Brown in the first place. Lower academic pressure means we can focus more on a broader definition of learning and understanding rather than just cramming for the sake of a letter grade. But at the same time, many of us would be kidding ourselves if we said we didn’t want the A in a tough class or that we didn’t care about missing the grade cutoff by one point.
As much as we try to deny or downplay it, grades do matter to a majority of students. And who can blame us? We live in a society that is highly focused on quantifiable measures of achievement and self-worth. In a world where high grades, a high-paying job and an array of material items equate to success, it’s difficult not to let your self-esteem ride on how well you do in your classes or whether or not you get accepted to a highly selective internship. We strive for certain benchmarks that signal success. In search of acknowledgment and self-confidence, we shoot for the A’s, we aim for positions that one out of 100 of people get, and — ironically enough — we place value on an “S with distinction.”
That’s not to say that this mindset is a bad thing. In fact, in many cases, being goal oriented can reap various benefits in classes, occupations and even relationships. But it is important to keep in mind that unquantifiable achievements and actions can be just as meaningful — if not more so — to your personal growth as quantifiable ones. For example, engaging in meaningful discussions with professors during office hours or connecting with the Providence community can be vital in helping students uncover their interests and develop their values. Such means of self-discovery stay with students for life, leading to long-term advantages as opposed to the short-term benefits of an A on a test. Nonetheless, acts of personal enrichment are often put on the back burner in order to make room for more measurable endeavors like studying or resume building, which yield more quantifiable results.
Brown, with its academic flexibility, does a relatively good job at encouraging and promoting unquantifiable experiences and reminding students that grades are not everything. Each day, Morning Mail advertises a multitude of keynote speakers, cultural events and discussions. Some of these activities even take place off campus, perhaps indirectly prodding us to engage more with the Providence community. We even have workshops entitled “How to Talk to Professors During Office Hours” in case we need the extra push.
Just because we are heavily encouraged doesn’t mean we are actually doing it. Think about how many times you’ve missed on-campus events because you “had to study” or you skipped out on office hours because you “had too much work to do.” I’m not saying we should all forgo our academic responsibilities for the sake of reveling in more experiential forms of learning. (That would certainly be a bad idea; you would flunk out.) But it’s important to be more mindful of the tremendous opportunities presented to us through academic leniency.
After all, at the end of the day, what will you remember more: the hour-long conversation you had with a professor about your shared love for the same author or the string of facts that you spent three hours squeezing onto a tiny index card for your midterm? Brown is known for its academic freedom, which gives us the unique opportunity to engage in unquantifiable activities that contribute to a well-rounded education. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we failed to take advantage of it.
Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.