Passing for Normal at Santa Cruz

Red-Letter Day for a Counterculture Experiment

"I'm not surprised," says Michele Myers, president of Sarah Lawrence College, referring to the Santa Cruz faculty's decision. "Narrative evaluations are based upon real knowledge of a student. If you have 200 students in a class, there's no way in the world you can know them that well." With an enrollment of about 1500, the Sarah Lawrence student-to-faculty ratio is 6 to 1. That ratio at Santa Cruz is 20 to 1. The difference, says Myers, is palpable. "At most campuses students have a reputation as grade grubbers. We don't get that here. In my view a good narrative evaluation is probably the most important teaching tool we have." Sarah Lawrence students actually do receive grades, but they typically see only their evaluations. Grades are kept on record for transcript purposes and must be specifically requested.

Whether or not it abolishes evaluations, Santa Cruz isn't the only school feeling pressure to conform. Last January New York State education commissioner Richard P. Mills refused to let the 40 alternative high schools in New York City submit portfolio projects in place of the onerous English Regent's exam now required for graduation. And some new alternative colleges, such as Arizona International College, which is affiliated with the University of Arizona, are having trouble getting off the ground. "You would think there would be room for experimentation in American higher education," says Arizona International founder Celestino Fernández. "But there is not. The pressures are great and almost endless to become like everyone else."

If nothing else, Santa Cruz retains its capacity to provoke. "If Santa Cruz loses evaluations, then it basically has sold its soul to the devil," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York. "The truth is, at a certain level no one worries about letter grades anymore. You don't take a philosophy class and say Kant gets an A and Hegel gets a C."

illustration by Jack Gallagher

As Life magazine observed a short while after the school opened, "Santa Cruz itself came into existence at almost the only possible time." Governor Ronald Reagan took office one year later, and teaching budgets grew tighter. By some estimates the school never recovered from the state's conservative regime. "They should stop building prisons in California," Botstein says, "and invest in higher education."

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