With midterm week(s) upon us, papers and tests are consuming students around the country leaving many to wonder, “Does this even matter?” It is a rhetorical question that I’ve asked myself many times, attempting to justify the amount of work I was unable/unwilling to finish or to comfort me with less-than-perfect marks. “Eh, what do grades matter anyway?’ While I have never “struggled” in school and my grades were by no means bad, such a philosophy always inhibited me from achieving the higher grades that were within my capability. So now I wonder a very non-rhetorical way, as a graduate theology student preparing for ordination, “Do grades matter?” Should I have studied more as an undergrad so that my GPA would have been .25 higher?
Yes and no. (Did you expect a straight answer?)
I wish I could emphatically say yes, that what I’m doing is of the utmost importance and that grades accurately reflected the amount of work I do and that they will predict how well I was going to be a priest in the future. That’s just not the case, because, frankly, no one cares how you did in “Canon Law of Sacramental Ministry” or “Ancient and Medieval Church History”. Even in more practical courses like “Advanced Preaching” or “Reconciliation” no one is out there wondering, “I wonder if he got an A…?” In life after school, either in ministry or professional degrees, no one is ever going to ask for or even wonder about how well someone was able to read a text and write a paper about it; what people want to see is someone who is knowledgeable and competent, who is able to integrate classroom information into real life situations.
Because our degree is a combination of intellectual and practical knowledge, it is fitting for people continuing on to higher academic studies as well as for people entering pastoral fields; because our degree is a combination of intellectual and practical knowledge, there are aspects of the degree that will serve absolutely no use to someone planning on only entering pastoral fields (this is also the case for every undergraduate degree. Do I really need Chemistry 101?) As a pastoral minister in the Church, do I really need to know the different liturgical rites of the Eastern Churches for baptism; the history of the Nestorian controversy and how the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon responded to it; or the differences between Scotus and Aquinas on the Absolute Will of God? Probably not. Does it matter, though, if I can give a personal (and theologically accurate) testimony of Jesus Christ in the life of the Church, offering consolation and guidance to someone having just lost a loved one? Absolutely.
With this is mind, knowing that we are in school not for academic pursuits but rather to better serve the people of God, there is a sense that we need to discern what is important and what is not, focusing less on the grades we earn and more on learning what will be useful. For example, the other day I was assigned a primary text of an ancient theologian that bored me to death and presented no practical application. Should I have a) read the treatise anyway, getting what was important to know for the test, or b) read the optional, supplemental material that gave a historical overview of the Church at that time, placing the theologian into the context of the whole Church? For me, even though it would not help my grade any more than doing nothing at all, I found the latter to be much more helpful in the long run of my ministry, and that’s how I spent my time.
I wish I could say that this is the solution to the question, that grades are merely letters with no significance at all and that all that matters is discerning what information is practical for ministry. This I simply cannot say. The fact of the matter is that grades do matter. While they should not be the determining factor to one’s happiness nor will they guarantee any success in the long run, they are helpful in keeping students on task and evaluating how well they were able to comprehend difficult material. Is everything in the course necessary for one’s ministerial career? Probably not. But how can one know what exactly will be useful in the long run? As the number of ministers in the Church continues to diminish, new ones will be called on to be all things for all people, expected to be prepared for anything and everything that comes along.
Similar to this, I think that there is a level of trust and obedience that can be exercised as a diligent student. Rather than discerning what is and is not useful, essentially dismissing the professor as unable to do his/her job, why not show some humility and give up one’s will in the matter, doing what is asked of oneself? I am fairly sure that graduation will not mark the end of trivial assignments or stressful work, so why not train the will, not the intellect, to be patient, obedient, and open-minded? I have found on more than one occasion that things I did not think were useful ended up being life-changing events. Who knows where God will speak?
Ultimately, while I wish that I could say that they don’t matter to me and that school is about what one learns, grades do matter to me, and that’s not a bad thing. Grades are an effective way to manage and motivate what I learn and how hard I work. As long as I remember that they are not ends in themselves and they do not give reason to boast in any way, that they are merely a tool to encourage me to learn more about God and serving God’s people, then I think they serve a great purpose. That’s the key, I guess. Whether it’s becoming a priest or going to tech school, learning is something that should always be done to build up the kingdom of God and should never be kept to oneself for pride or personal glory. Do grades matter? I guess it all depends on why one wants them.