Mat Cusick on His One-Way Trip to Mexico and the Fetishization of Grades

Noodle Expert Mat Cusick discusses what he learned on his one-way trip to Mexico and his concerns with the fetishization of grades in education.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

It's not easy to pick just one teacher! Should I pursue a critical inquiry into ethical living with Socrates, one of history's legendary teachers? Learn about learning itself with John Dewey or Lev Vygotsky? Explore theories for building a radically just society with Ivan Illich or Roberto Mangabeira Unger? Cultivate heightened awareness and spiritual freedom with Jiddu Krishnamurti or Paramahansa Yogananda? I want a whole college course load!

If I had to choose only one teacher, I may bring back Buckminster Fuller, the great designer, inventor, author, and systems theorist. He applied his innovative design thinking to such a wide range of important fields that I could profitably study just about anything with him — including the very process by which he was able to develop such a diversity of valuable insights. Moreover, all of his work was built around a lifelong project in which I would love to participate: “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

I appreciate the humble grace in Frederick Buechner's writing. In one of his memoirs, "Now and Then," he beautifully sums up the message of his work as a novelist and a preacher: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

"À la dérive," in the words of Guy Debord, drifting through an unfamiliar city. The precise where is not nearly as important as the how. I would suggest that a student wander off without a plan, with a mind wide open to whatever comes, following the opportunities provided by chance and serendipity. Too often, when we plan for travel, our experience becomes circumscribed by the limitations of our imagination and expectations. In an unplanned wander-about, we must necessarily encounter the unexpected, which reminds us of the "fathomless mystery" of life, even in everyday experience.

Nearly a decade ago, after graduating from college, I bought a one-way flight to Mexico without any plan upon arrival, and the result was magical. Following chance encounters and random recommendations, I eventually ended up in a small beach town unfamiliar to the guidebooks, where I now have a home, a community of friends, and fulfilling work projects. I doubt very much that I would have made it there had I planned my journey in advance.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

Failed academically? No such thing! Honestly, if learning is the goal of academics, then even a "failed" academic attempt should be a successful learning opportunity, as the question itself suggests. The only real "failure" would be the failure to take advantage of the growth opportunity that trial and error provide. I worry that we fetishize grades and overestimate the value of exam performance at the expense of learning and our emotional well-being.

We need to be able to venture forth into the great unknown without fear of failure or some permanent negative evaluation threatening our future academic access or employment prospects. After all, my chosen teacher for a year, Buckminster Fuller, was expelled from Harvard — twice! — and nevertheless managed to demonstrate through his own life that a single individual can contribute quite a lot to "changing the world and benefiting all humanity."

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I became an educator because I love learning. Teachers help others learn, and in so doing are continually learning themselves — although I believe this applies to everyone, as we are all teachers and students in so many ways. With all due respect to schoolteachers — my own mother included — I chose to avoid a full-time position in a school because I felt that my active participation as an authority in an authoritarian structure of control, however benevolent, would be a violation of basic principles I hold about learning and life.

I am opposed to the fundamentally coercive and punitive system of academic grading, which I believe does real psychological damage to so-called "low achievers" and "high achievers" alike — and doesn't even serve its intended purpose very well. Thankfully, as an educator outside of schools, I have encountered a much richer diversity of teaching and learning experiences than I ever could have imagined. Each new educational context calls for new approaches, and develops new perspectives. And as much as one may plan for a class, teaching is always an improv performance. I am grateful for a profession that promises infinite opportunities to grow.

Article Topics: