Teaching Democratic Truth

There are students who will wrangle for every possible point, and like the proverbial penny-pincher, I suppose these inveterate wranglers wind up richest in the end.  “A point here, a point there, and before you know it, you’re talking a whole a whole letter grade.  And, you know, that G.P.A isn’t going to raise itself.”

I never knew students wrangled points until I became a professor.  I was one of those acquiescent fools who thought grades were carved in stone, not butter; and I did not in any case suppose that a professor would melt under the blowtorch of my pilpul.  If I disputed a point, I supposed the professor would laugh at me.  And if I objected to his laughing, I supposed the dean would have a good laugh too.

Now I know the only ones laughing are the wranglers after they have caged a few more points.

After many years of brooding over wranglers (not to mention fearing their knock at the door), I have devised a watertight defense against wrangling.  I call it democratic grading, and under the aegis of democratic grading, I will never have to defend another test question.  Here is how it works.

Democratic grading allows the class to select the correct answers to test questions by treating their answers as votes.  Take, for instance, this question:

1) What is the name of the great river of Africa, famous for its regular floods, that empties into the Mediterranean Sea?

a) Zambesi
b) Ganges
c) Nile
d) Madagascar

Under the old autocratic grading system, I would, of course, indicate (c) as the correct answer on the exam key.  In doing so, I would, naturally, presuppose definitions of words such as “Africa,” “famous,” “regular,” and “empties.”  An audacious point-wrangler would, therefore (and just as naturally), deconstruct my autocratic argument by questioning these presuppositions.

This wrangling student would point out that the Indian subcontinent was once part of Africa, so only narrow presentism excludes it as an African river.  He would observe that the Ganges is sacred to Hindus, that Hindus are very numerous, and therefore it—the Ganges—might justly be called the more famous of these two great rivers of Africa.  As for the regularity of flooding, he would demand to know how regular an event must be to be counted as regular.  And finally, he would ask me to prove that clouds, those great distributaries in the sky, had never once emptied waters that had been Gangetic onto the broad bosom of the blue Mediterranean.

Well, I’m done with this pilpul.  From now on, a class vote will decide the meaning of words and the correctness of answers, and the test itself will be the ballot in this vote.  If a plurality of the students choose (d), for instance, Madagascar will be democratically correct. Rather than presupposing definitions of words, I will henceforth accept that every question can be construed in such a way that the answer the students democratically elect is the correct answer.  After all, I will have objective evidence that a plurality, perhaps even a majority, of the students construed the question in just this way.

I expect the wranglers will be dumbstruck, perhaps even nonplussed, by the irresistible democratic authority of answers chosen in this way. Whatever pilpul they might cook up will be inexorably overruled by the democratic pilpul of the class.  Against this democratic authority, there can be, of course, no appeal.  If there is an aggrieved minority who answer (c), for instance, and they try to defend their answer with an appeal to books and maps, it will be my duty to tell them that, most students do not understand those books and maps in that way.

In addition to sparing me wrangling over points, democratic grading has the added benefit of teaching students that social truth is more important than ontological truth.  With luck, it will teach them that ontological truth is a chimera, and that the correct definition of truth is “what most people think.”

The chimera of ontological truth causes nothing but trouble because it encourages antisocial and undemocratic behavior.  If you consider the example of exam grading, it is obvious that the chimera of ontological truth is nothing but ideology.  The ideology of ontological truth legitimates elitism by maintaining that a minority can be “correct.”

You may think that I have overlooked the possibility of students conspiring to answer all multiple-choice questions (d).  I have anticipated this conspiracy, and will scramble answers, so that “Nile” will be answer (a) on one test, but answer (b), (c) or (d) on others.  When a student sits chewing his pencil over this question, he will not, therefore, try to remember what he saw on a map or read in a book, because he will know that ontological truth is a dangerous chimera.  He will, rather, try to guess what his classmates are thinking and conform his mind to this general will.

And that is, after all, what democracy is all about.



5 thoughts on “Teaching Democratic Truth

  1. Pingback: Teaching Democratic Truth | @the_arv

  2. I personally prefer an autocratic grading system, where it’s my way or the highway. This has its drawbacks, of course, in that I have to deal with wranglers. But strangely, wranglers seem not to bother me much when I tell them I don’t care if they need a C instead of a C- to keep their funding.

    At the end of the semester, I usually have two or three who throw enough of a stink they go to the department head to rage or whine about how they should have passed the class, and I am questioned: do I think they should get a higher grade?

    The answer is an inevitable no, they get their grades, and the world continues to turn.

    There is no doubt in my mind that this resolve is helped by the fact that I am no professor, worrying about tenure I either have or wish to possess, but rather a PhD student with no interest in an academic career, and previous job experience to boot. Thus, my attitude with the department in these cases is that they don’t pay me to muck their academic cow-pens, and if they disagree they can find someone more willing or quintuple my pay.

    So far, they continue to offer me funding.

    The point of this little ramble, however, beyond its possible comedic counterpoise to your well-aimed satire, is that your democratic proposal sounds like so much unnecessary work. And that, I think, reveals an essential truth about democratic governance: democracy generates sinecures. An apparent advantage for the land rich enough to support them, I suppose.

    • A related phenomenon is students who constantly inquire about how they are doing in the course. Invariably they are students who are not doing well in the course — and they certainly know that they are not doing well in the course. If a student only rarely attended class, and had failed three out of five quizzes, the question of “how am I doing in the course” would assuredly and readily answer itself. Perhaps such students are motivated by the hope that, magically, the instructor will say the contrary of what they well know, thereby rectifying the situation from the matriculant point of view and without any effort on his part.

      • Magical thinking? Among college students? Perish the thought!
        Then, after it has perished, the problem goes away, right?

  3. Pingback: Teaching Democratic Truth | Reaction Times


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