Photo from Christopher Khew
Enrolling from the top 3% of a Yale-NUS application pool is remarkable, not simply because of the low acceptance rate but because we have chosen to come here to be the torch bearers, to be in the vanguard of an educational revolution. Six weeks into school, we now have a taste of unadulterated freedom, and while overwhelmed by a daunting workload, we can conquer it. We applied here because we learn unlike most, and we attend this institution today because we have been recognized to have the talent to succeed in our future ventures. Surprisingly and perhaps a little disappointingly, however, is how obsessed our cohort has been on an arbitrary letter professors have assigned on our quizzes, assignments, and tests. Facebook statuses raving about first ‘As’ are not isolated incidents. It is worrying that a community that prides itself on its academic excellence is still shackled by the very failures of a system in which excellence is defined not by intelligence in its intangible form but in letter grades that homogenize an individual process. While a stellar transcript at the end of college may put you at an advantage over other candidates, a student here simply for future career benefits does not understand the liberal arts model and certainly is not taking full advantage of what is offered at our school. And at the end of the day, the first twelve weeks of school are grade-less! Our priorities are wrong, and we cannot distinguish ourselves as a one of a kind university if we are archaic and anachronistic in our identification of intelligence.
The beauty of a semester without grades is that we have the liberty to acclimate to this dramatic change — a life without parental supervision and for many, a land thousands of miles away from home — at our own pace. In self defeating attempts to be the ‘best’ in class and working to get the highest grade on the next essay, we lose the most valuable lessons that are taught by our peers, in conversation, in cooperation, and most importantly, in failure. The grade-less semester is almost a safety net to see how far you can extend yourself before setting your priorities straight and balancing an academic, extracurricular, and social life at a pace suitable to your needs. If we do not recognize the importance and benefits of taking risks and failing now, we will never do so and by conforming to the very things Yale-NUS wants us to shed, we become ordinary in an extraordinary setting.
Realize that I am not suggesting us to actively seek not to get an ‘A’. Far from that, if you are truly talented in a subject, you should be recognized and appreciated for it. Sadly, students crying over ‘Cs’ and celebrating ‘As’ is a sign that we are not appreciating the act of learning but simply the subjective acknowledgement of understanding what has been taught. Instead, celebrate that by failing today, we have gotten a taste of disappointment and that we fall so that we can rise taller the next time. We are not paying thousands of dollars to constantly be patted on the back and be reaffirmed that we are doing fine in life. To the contrary, you are here to fail, understand that you will not always succeed, and that the twelve years prior to now have given you a clean slate to absorb all that the professors and students have to offer here.