Manufacturing Coherence: On the Ricoeurian Symbolism of Grading


Grading is one of the most recognizable and pervasive practices of formal education. Still, many philosophers have failed to offer an effective framework through which to interpret the meaning of a student’s academic grade–at least in the sense of what both students and educational stakeholders ought to take a given grade to mean. For several decades, scholarship has come to revolve around being “pro” (grades are meaningful) or “anti” (grades are meaningless) grading. It is proposed here that conceptualizing grades as Ricoeurian symbols resolves this debate. Grades are symbolic in that they are denoted by a direct, primary, literal sign, but the sign (e.g., “A,” “B”) points at a second, “inexhaustible intentionality” produced by interpreting one’s cultural milieu. The symbolic meaning of grades can be understood properly, yet imperfectly through the dialectic of Ricoeur’s “ideology” and “utopia.” It is shown that grades are subject not to some transparent, yet polysemic, meaning to be accepted or rejected simpliciter. Rather, grades are inevitable cultural symbols and must be subject to hermeneutic interpretation. Ricoeur’s dialectic is a powerful framework for educators to use utopic thinking to critique social ideologies in pursuit of the common good–even though a non-ideological approach is impossible.

Keywords: ideology and utopia; critique of grading; grading practices; Paul Ricoeur; symbolism; meaning of grades

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