Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Phenomenological Reflections on the Failing Grade


McPike, Grace


We have all become accustomed to a world that incorporates failure into daily life. It is not a pleasing part of our lives, and we remember the hurt that each failure provides. Yet, we perpetuate failure and insist upon its necessity in the classroom, for in our schools we are concerned with the evaluation of the child. Our evaluators are grounded in positivism and relativism, and so, failure is built into the system.


We might ask “What is a failure?” or “Why does a child fail?” but to ask such questions only perpetuates the assumptions upon which relativism and positivism are based. These questions fail to uncover more fundamental questions, whose answers might uncover the “being” of failure. Thus, we might ask instead:


  1. How is it possible that negative evaluations are accepted?
  2. How is it that people accept decisions which are negative to their own well being?

Even these questions are unacceptable, for they assume as given, rejection, an understanding of rejection, and the establishment of rejection. It is for this reason that we must not deal with the effects of rejection but with the essence of rejection, itself. We must question how a rejection can be understood. To understand the fundamental reality of failure, we must look to the common disclosures of what the experience of a failing grade is like.


Here is the personal account of John, a grade twelve student:

When I received the grade, it was a total shock. It felt like someone had slapped me in the face. I felt myself start to become flushed and my concentration went completely down the drain. My first thought was that it had to be a mistake, so I immediately checked over my score. I didn’t want anyone to know my grade because I felt entirely ashamed and embarrassed. I put the exam away in such a place that I wouldn’t have to keep encountering it when I was going through my papers. I just wanted to shut it out of my mind and totally forget the whole experience. Openly, I acted as if my grade didn’t bother me, but inside I could feel my stomach churning and I got a headache. I felt even worse about my failing grade because my expectations of my mark were much higher than what I received.

In a sense, the mark on an assignment is nothing more than a reflection of the opinion of one’s teacher. Yet, we can all agree and corroborate the feelings stated by John. How is it that mere opinion of another allows one to feel such shame and embarrassment? What lies beneath the word failure? To understand failure we must be aware of some standard and, in this sense, a deficiency. Receiving a failing grade means receiving a low position relative to all of the others in the class. As a matter of fact, it means having no value in relation to others. Brent describes it this way:

I felt like I was at the bottom of the barrel. Not humiliated by others, but like little creatures inside of me were laughing at me and humiliating me. I felt like a failure. I labelled myself as a failure as if an “F” on my record would mark me for life.

What is it about our view of man within our society that makes such a marking for life possible? Is it the passiveness of the act of receiving, or is it the assuming that a decision made by the teacher is true and valid and that normality can be failed according to some standard of measurement? In the world of standards, grades, and positions lies the science of evaluation under which lies hidden the assumed rationality of rejection as a necessary end of a continuum.


Such a continuum seems grounded in a belief that an individual’s worth can be measured according to some predetermined conditions that can quickly measure his competence to perform a set number of tasks in a set amount of time. Such a time-efficient measure of worth marks rejection as a way of re-affirming the laws of a society grounded in technology with person as object.


Rejection as Identity

To receive a failing grade is to have one’s identity rejected. Yet the rejection, or the worth of the being, is based upon the mechanism rather than the human. In the world of school, identity is based on facts and figures as if the numbers could all be added up, divided, and a percentage of identity assigned. Such a resulting grade assesses the worth of that identity and the likeliness of its success within the system. The assumption of difference and its worth becomes rejected by such measurement of conformity and, in a sense, the standard represents or measures “the hollow man-the shell of one’s being.” John expressed anger at his teacher for evaluating “only the cover and not the inside pages.” To him, what makes the individual unique and important is the totality of his being, not just the mark he receives on a test. The whole book receiving the same mark as the cover receives is glossing over the importance of being. Perhaps the paradox lies in the assumption that identity can be measured at all! The outrageousness of the measurement of identity is hidden by a facade of impartiality and fair judgement of who shall be denied identity.


There is a notion of rules that govern who is to be rejected. First, there is the orderly character of the evaluation process: There is always a range of marks with a built-in necessity to fail or score low a predetermined number. Another rule, however, is that the rules or standards may be applied differently so that various results may be produced. We have all heard of the paper handed in to three different teachers receiving three different marks ranging from excellent to failure. Finally, there is the rule that an objective rejection is required, one not based upon the subjectivity of a teacher’s understanding of the child but upon “hard” data of his cognitive performance. In this sense, a distance between child and pedagogue is constantly perpetuated. Such impersonality only increases when identity is denied to the child. Failure at school threatens the further loss of love and acceptance from those who are absolutely vital in life; peers, friends, and family.


The mark of inacceptance arouses a crucial fear: Will my parents find out that I have been judged a nothing? To Linda, there was the sadness of disappointing her parents and fearing that this bond, too, would be broken, or forever changed by the denial of her identity at school. To Linda, the grade was just-it had been determined impartially and justly: her denial was “fact” and “valid.” Because of this imposed separation from the group, she felt a need to self-impose a removal from the group by packing her books and leaving, skipping classes. Despite the acute need to remain with the group, there was also an acute sense of unworth, “an ending of my life,” and the need to punish herself for having lost her identity as a member of the group.


The system ruthlessly and objectively rejects a required number, using hard, fast, impartial rules. As described by Andy, all that matters is the relative standing on the basis of factual measurement:

I lifted the cover of my notebook and saw a “D” beside my name. My heart stopped beating for a second. To make things worse, I found that out of fifty people, I was one of the twelve lowest marks. I found that in straight percentage points I would have received 70%, but since more people scored higher, the marks were scaled down. Many questions went through my head. What did I do wrong? I believed that I had studied sufficiently. Yet to get a “D” after I expected a “B” or an “A”-how disappointing. I lost trust in my study habits. I felt ashamed. Yet, I also felt that I must try even harder.

Although such rules of rejection are accepted by most students, some protest the unfairness of the judgement being made. To Don, “perhaps one hour decides the results of months of study” and didn’t take into account his personal life, such as a death in the family, moving house, sickness, matrimony, or children’s problems. To Don, identity and being were more than the results of an empirical test, and he showed consternation over the fact that society valued the “cover” rather than “the inside pages.” Yet, while Don was upset with these rules of rejection, he wished to keep the love and respect of those performing the judgement. As Janice added to his remarks, “a failing grade creates a sense of ‘letting down the teacher.’ ” For Janice, the mark doesn’t represent the failing of an assignment but the failing to acquire the love and acceptance of her teacher whom she highly respects. She does not want to lose this respect, but she may not be able to prevent it. She has a helpless feeling of being revealed, of being disrobed: “it shows to others all of my weaknesses and the things I should be ashamed of.” Yet, this disrobing cannot be prevented. What is private and extremely personal is made concrete and public, subject to the scrutiny and possible rejection by others. It is as if “a label is stuck on my forehead, saying dummy,” noted Janice.


What is it about our society that demands a measurement of identity according to set criteria and standards? It seems as if the “cover” really is more important, as if the real person must be hidden behind the gloss of the image put forward to others. In this sense, the real being is disliked or discarded because of its worthlessness or evilness and must be hidden or contained by the polish of civilization. Or is it that the real person must be hidden in order to be protected from the harshness of the world, and therefore the gloss is needed to protect the self from others? In any case, it seems as if dual personalities exist-as if a separation between body and soul is maintained and believed in. Such Cartesian dualism seems to underlie the question of identity of the being and seems to address the question of human perfection, or perhaps human imperfection. It perhaps speaks of a dichotomy of materialism and spiritualism in a highly technological, automated, “perfected” society. To “be” in our society is to accept the dualism of physical being and spiritual being and to gloss over one with the other. Identity, then, in any case, is unreal-it in itself may be a gloss. To fail may mean not being able to hold this gloss in place, to hide what is real. Being rejected may mean being exposed “allowing others to see reality of one’s self.”


Rejection as Time

A failing grade is like a gamma ray. Too much failure creates dwarfed lives or death. Lives receiving little failure grow to be normal and some receiving moderate failure may “double boom,” as did people like Hitler, Einstein, and Van Gogh. The effects of failure accumulate over time. To Gloria, “first there was a sinking feeling of fear, and shock, and a tinge of guilt of misspent time.” Then there was the fear of the expectations of others being disappointed but, as well, an outrage at the fact of the failure. She promised to improve her mark and felt indignantly righteous about the fact that her teacher had been wrong: at the same time hoping that somehow she would be rescued. Finally, she said, “I realized that they didn ‘t want me to pass. I set my resolve to attack aside and accepted my rejection. ”


Rejection alters one’s awareness of time. There is an acute awareness of a loss of time, yet a need to move forward. While a mark has been placed upon the thinking of the past, that mark powerfully reaches into the future:

You feel like everyone’s looking at you and thinking you really are a dummy. You feel as though you’re being punished for life and as though you never want to learn again, because, after all, bad marks are barring you from moving forward.

In this sense, a failing mark stops time for a student. It is as if rejection signifies that time has run out for that person. There is a feeling of remorse for not having taken advantage of a good opportunity and a wish to relive the past-to undo time and erase the unhappy past that prevents the future.


Though time sequence as we know it runs from beginning to end, rejection changes this sense of direction and forces time to move in the opposite direction, starting at the anticipation of the end. There is nothing to build upon to change potential into reality. With the rejection of identity comes the loss of the promise of future. It is as if a failing grade removes the hands from the clock, rendering time useless and forcing the person to live with memories that should have been forgotten and outgrown. The feeling of not having a future forces the past to alter present time. Rejection makes a child feel he must re-capture time and make it his own, yet such a feeling glosses over the essence of time-that it is no longer functional to one without identity. This is hinted at by Andy, when he spoke of time in terms of sacrificing: in “giving your heart and soul for no reward.” He has given both aspects of his identity-his physical and spiritual. There is a sense of taking stock of one’s life and coming up with a zero. Time has run out.


Rejection as Morality

Rejection means bad-a condemnation by “Everyman,” for positivistic evaluation mandates an unbiased response by a marker-the response that any man would give, using the same criteria. In this way, the decision to condemn is made “just.” Yet, such criteria gloss the amount of interpretive work used to normalize and standardize the conditions of such a “just,” objective model. Bad is not then based upon objective criteria but is a moral interpretation of a marker, who then uses criteria to defend his decision.


What, though, in a society necessitates the need for “bad?” Its significance lies perhaps in the doing, rather than in the saying or applying of bad. Bad is only the surface feature of rejection that hides an entire tradition of power and authority. As Nietzsche suggests, “bad” is a manifestation of the will to power which its use conceals and covers over. The child senses his powerlessness in the struggle with the major force or power, but he reacts to the “badness,” in a sense succumbing to the power covered over by the morality of failure. As Jan noted, “I hate to be a failure for it makes me feel guilty of something. I did so wrong, and I am ashamed of myself. ” What has been so wrong may not be the failing of a paper or test, but, indeed, the perpetuating of the power of those who mete out death and use the weaknesses of the child to generate itself.


The question needing to be answered by the pedagogue is the one which asks if rejection ought to be a necessary condition of education, and if, indeed, rejection allows the child to learn what we have set out to teach him. If acceptance and rejection in school is merely based upon the grounds of power and control, then surely there are more human ways of deciding who will be allowed to have control and who will not.


Paul Zindel attempts to heighten our awareness of what lies beyond our accepted practice of rejection when he creates an icon of Tilly, a shy, little, mothy girl who gains fame overnight through her science fair project and, with it, the love and respect of her community, family and friends. The harsh irony of her fame is that the significance of her experience is lost to everyone, and the plants she speaks about are considered only as freaks. But, they too, are icons of the children found in our schools:

The seeds which have received little radiation have grown to plants which are normal in appearance. The seeds which received moderate radiation gave rise to mutations such as double blooms, giant stems, and variegated leaves. The seeds closest to the gamma source were killed or yielded dwarf plants.

In many of our schools, children are separated into groups and taught, hopefully for their best interests. Yet, sometimes these experiments cause freaks more than they promote normal growth. Self-fulfilling prophecies are generated and promoted in homogeneous groupings where the bottom class is grouped before it starts and ends still at the bottom. Often the grouping is not so blatant but lies hidden under the system of marking. In a world that allows such segregation, what are the children really learning and what is the school really teaching and reinforcing? The question may be one of “Who is really failing?” Is school a place to teach some children that they may have no identity and that there is no time for them, or do we as pedagogues wish to help each and every student actualize his “self” worth?