Excerpt from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on Gradeless Systems

I'd like to share this passage from Robert Pirsig's classic novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. This passage speaks to the motivations for learning and how the quest for a high grade ought not to be confused with the quest for comprehension or mastery of a skill or subject. The author speculates that a gradeless University system would be more effective than one that emphasises perfunctory hoop-jumping with a grade as the objective rather than the goal.


Upon my resignation from graduate school at the University of Colorado Health Science Center (UCHSC) Department of Neuroscience in 1997, I appended this excerpt to my letter of withdrawal.




From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:



[His] argument for the abolition of the degree and grading system produced a nonplussed or negative reaction in all but a few students at first, since it seemed, on first judgment, to destroy the whole University system. One student laid it wide open when she said with complete candor, "Of course you cant eliminate the degree and grading system. After all, thats what were here for."


She spoke the complete truth. The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but rote and the mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude.


The demonstrator was an argument that elimination of grades and degrees would destroy this hypocrisy. Rather than deal with generalities it dealt with the specific career of an imaginary student who more or less typified what was found in the classroom, a student completely conditioned to work for a grade rather than for the knowledge the grade was supposed to represent.


Such a student, the demonstrator hypothesized, would go to his first class, get his first assignment and probably do it out of habit. He might go to his second and third as well. But eventually the novelty of the course would wear off and, because his academic life was not his only life, the pressure of other obligations or events would create circumstances where he just would not be able to get an assignment completed adequately.


Since there was no degree or grading system he would incur no penalty for this. Subsequent lectures which presumed hed completed the assignment might be a little more difficult to understand, however, and this difficulty, in turn, might weaken his interest to a point where the next assignment, which he would find quite hard, would also be dropped. Again no penalty.


In time his weaker and weaker understanding of what the lectures were about would make it more and more difficult for him to pay attention in class. Eventually he would see he wasnt learning much; and facing the continual pressure of outside obligations, he would stop studying, feel guilty about this and stop attending class. Again, no penalty would be attached.


But what had happened? The student, with no hard feelings on anybodys part, would have flunked himself out. Good! This is what should have happened. A large amount of money and effort had been saved and there would be no stigma of failure and ruin to haunt him the rest of his life. No bridges had been burned.


The students biggest problem was a slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and -whip grading, a mule mentality which said, "If you dont whip me, I wont work." He didnt get whipped. He didnt work. And the cart of civilization, which he supposedly was being trained to pull, was just going to have to creak along a little slower without him.


This is a tragedy, however, only if you presume that the cart of civilization, "the system", is pulled by mules. This is a common, vocational, "location" point of view, but its not the [true learning]s attitude. [True learning]s attitude is that civilization, or " the system ", or "society", or whatever you want to call it, is best served not by mules but by free men. The purpose of abolishing grades and degrees is not to punish mules or to get rid of them but to provide an environment in which that mule can turn into a free man.


The hypothetical student, still a mule, would drift around for a while. He would get another kind of education quite as valuable as the one hed abandoned, in what used to be called the "school of hard knocks." Instead of wasting money and time as a high-status mule, he would now have to get a job as a low-status mule, maybe as a mechanic. Actually his real status would go up. He would be making a contribution for a change. Maybe thats what he would do for the rest of his life. Maybe hed found his level. But dont count on it.


In time six months; five years, perhaps a change could easily begin to take place. He would become less and less satisfied with a kind of dumb, day-to-day shopwork. His creative intelligence, stifled by too much theory and too many grades in college, would now become re-awakened by the boredom of the shop. Thousands of hours of frustrating mechanical problems would have made him more interested in machine design. He would like to design machinery himself. Hed think he could do a better job. He would try modifying a few engines, meet with success, look for more success, but feel blocked because he didnt have the theoretical information, hed now find a brand of theoretical information which hed have a lot of respect for, namely, mechanical engineering.


So he would come back to our degreeless and gradeless school, but with a difference. Hed no longer be a grade-motivated person. Hed be a knowledge-motivated person. He would need no external pushing to learn. His push would come from inside. Hed be a free man. He wouldnt need a lot of discipline to shape him up. In fact, if the instructors were slacking on the job he would be likely to shape them up by asking rude questions. Hed be there to learn something, would be paying to learn something and theyd better come up with it.


Motivation of this sort, once it catches hold, is a ferocious force, and in the gradeless, degreeless institution where our student would find himself, he wouldnt stop with rote engineering information. Physics and mathematics were going to come within his sphere of interest because hed see he needed them. Metallurgy and electrical engineering would come up for attention. And, in the process of intellectual maturing that these abstract studies gave him, he would be likely to branch out into other theoretical areas that werent directly related to machines but had become a part of a newer larger goal. This larger goal wouldnt be the imitation of education in Universities today, glossed over and concealed by grades and degrees that give the appearance of something happening when, in fact, almost nothing is going on. It would be the real thing.

Letter of withdrawal from the Neuroscience Program at the UCHSC

In 1997, I was accepted to a gradauate program in Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Health Science Center. Of the 4 students accepted that year, I was one of two accepted early, and so I began my research project in June. Working in Paula Bickford's lab on the effects of oxidative damage in brain with implications for ageing, I enjoyed a wonderful summer especially since I lived right on Colfax, just a block from the lab. In August I began the fall classes, including Neurobiology (1), Cell Biology (2), Biochemistry of Proteins (3), Laboratory Methods in Neuroscience (4), and Seminar (5). There was also the required lab rotation, consuming some 20+ hours per week. The classes were outstanding, but I felt that the demand was too much and that too much emphasis was placed on volume of classes rather than quality of learning. Note that these were 4 very difficult classes, plus seminar, plus lab rotations. I spent every waking hour reading, working, and attending class, but I felt there was simply not enough time to master the subjects at the level I expected of myself for graduate level. I recently checked the curriculum for the program in 2004, and I found that the program had since changed and now it only required two difficult courses per semester rather than four.

I departed the university for a few days in October that year to give it some thought, and during that time I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM). This book, especially this passage, encouraged my decision to withdraw from the program.

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