Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘The Dispossessed,’ Against Grades

with 2 comments

A blogger at HASTAC reminds me of a favorite moment from The Dispossessed:

In The Dispossessed, Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, part of a binary planetary system, travels to Urras, his planets twina world defined by property, wealth, class, nation-states, and hierarchy: all things abolished and abhorred on his anarchist, revolutionary planet. He teaches at a state-run university during his stay on this foreign world that LeGuin obviously intends as a mirror to our Earth:

He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.

Well, of course, Shevek said, troubled. If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it.

They went away unappeased, but polite. They were pleasant boys, with frank and civil manners. Sheveks readings in Urrasti history led him to decide that they were, in fact, though the word was seldom used these days, aristocrats. In feudal times the aristocracy had sent their sons to university, conferring superiority on the institution. Nowadays it was the other way round: the university conferred superiority on the man. They told Shevek with pride that the competition for scholarships to Ieu Eun was stiffer every year, proving the essential democracy of the institution. He said, You put another lock on the door and call it democracy. He liked his polite, intelligent students, but he felt no great warmth towards any of them. They were planning careers as academic or industrial scientists, and what they learned from him was to them a means to that end, success in their careers. They either had, or denied the importance of, anything else he might have offered them…

Written by gerrycanavan

December 22, 2010 at 11:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. Not sure about my favourite moment from The Dispossessed. But the most memorable was at the party, where Shevek got drunk and ended up in an embarrassing incident with a woman he fancied. If you recall it’s not something i can go into detail about here.

    Adrian Kyte

    December 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm

  2. We talked over that section for nearly a full class period when I taught the book. The students were really troubled by it.

    gerrycanavan

    December 22, 2010 at 12:44 pm


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