Education, Integrity and the Zero

The concept of the zero was introduced to medieval Europe through Arab mathematicians in Spain.  There is some contradictory evidence of the Greeks and Romans having access to the concept, but not being able to articulate exactly what would be an integer that meant “nothing, naught.”  Point of this history lesson?  It is really hard for people to grasp the zero.

In Edmonton, AB, there is a teacher who has recently been suspended for assessing students who have not handed in any work (despite regular and repeated extensions) at zero.  They don’t do any work, so they don’t get any credit.  He has been suspended because the Edmonton Public School Board’s Ross Shepard High School has a “no zero” policy.  To quote the CBC article on the matter:

The thinking behind the policy is that failing to complete assignments is a behavioural issue and marks should reflect ability, not behaviour.

It is not a surprise, I’m sure, that I offer my wholehearted support to the teacher in this case.  There is no point in coddling students through their education.  Indeed, it does the students a tremendous disservice to suggest that total inaction can lead to a partial grade, as that is simply not how the world outside high school works.  You can read more about the individual reactions to this in the comment thread beneath the article, if you want.

What I am more interested in is that this kind of policy is percolating up into university classrooms where, until recently, professors had the duty to assign zeroes to assignments that were unacceptable, not handed in, sexist, racist, incompetent, etc.  

The “no zero” policy seems to be linked the quantification of education that came out of the US in the late 90s/early 00s and is really encapsulated by the Bush-era “No Child Left Behind” law.  The problems with that particular act are manyfold, but it is the question of quantification that I take umbrage with here.  The philosophy behind the act, which is that there should be quantifiable and objective measures of educational outcomes, imposes an industrial and capitalist model of production onto what is (in the case of universities) an inherently medieval institution that was created and sustained through the centuries because it was a social good.

As university departments are increasingly called upon to quantify their students’ performance and the abilities of their staff to reach the educational goals merely to justify the departments’ continued existence, the possibility of genuine education recedes into the distance.  What do I mean by genuine education?  

Not comfortable…  learning.

Education requires discomfort on the part of the person who is learning.  They have to be put into a situation where they do not know how to act/what to think/where to go and that is anxiety producing.  Think of learning to drive manual transmission.  No one knows, naturally, where to put their feet, when to shift gears, how to “feel” for the car.  You start off anxious, driving poorly, and then… you get better.  That is genuine education.

You start off poorly, then you get better… but you begin in anxiety.  You begin in confusion.  You begin at zero.

The zero is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp.  It is anxiety producing in the extreme.  It is a sign of no sign.  It is a cipher, a stand in, not for something, but for nothing at all.  It doesn’t follow the laws that other integers follow – it is unique.  It is a sign of failure for some.  It is a totally alien concept for others.

I’ve always wanted to structure my classes like a video game where all students start at zero and as they complete assignments, they move up the levels/grade chart.  I couldn’t do that if I was in a department that was under threat of its own existence, however, because that implies that my students could get zero by not playing the game/showing up to class.

I know of university professors who have been unable to fail students on papers where those students have shown a gross negligence regarding the use of the English language (misspelling a common three-letter word).  All because departments need to maintain their funding.  Zeroes will get you zero funding in a climate keyed to capitalist models of production.

And we all know how well capitalist/corporate models of production have worked…

Educators need the zero.  We need anxiety.  


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