The empty worship of GPA

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Photo by Francesca Norman

I certainly hope that I will not die tomorrow. But if I do, I will have to be confronted with the utter worthlessness that a GPA bears for a corpse in a coffin. 

Since the fall of man, every individual has been tempted to idolatry. I have never built a golden calf or gorged myself on raisin cakes, but I have absolutely erected an altar to my academic success. The pall that hung over UD during midterms week assures me that I am not alone in this failure.

Our preoccupation with grades and consequent anxiety over school is partially caused by our existence in a democratic social state. 

Tocqueville sounds like he’s writing about UD during midterms week when he writes: “In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures.” 

This sadness stems from a reality that should be hope-filled. As Americans, our futures are not locked into place by aristocratic hierarchy. In our social state, we are told that we can come from any background and as long as we work hard enough, we can succeed. 

As I pour libations of late-night coffee and drained serotonin to the altar of school, I tend to recite the following prayer: If I perform well on this test, it will contribute to a high GPA, which will increase my chances of getting into grad school, which will … 

While this statement is logical, it is an unending prayer that will never be fully answered. The “singular agitation” of my American mind, according to Tocqueville, causes me to grasp for more and more without ever being satisfied. It causes me to place my hope in a quantifiable result of my efforts.

There is a more positive reason for UD students’ immoderate preoccupation with academics. Most of us truly love our classes and are fascinated by the work we do. Whenever we love something, we desire to pour our whole selves into that thing. We long to understand every facet of the subject at hand. We carry our class discussions into meals and late nights in our dorms.

But even this genuine love of academics can become distorted. Seeing academia as an end in itself causes one to fall into a sort of intellectual gluttony. If one races after knowledge without stopping to drink from the side of the Crucified, he or she begins to die of thirst.

My thirst to love and be loved can never be satisfied by something as finite as a class. My soul is made in the image of infinite Love and it gasps to be possessed by this infinity. 

To worship school at the expense of one’s spiritual life, personal health — of which sleep is a vital aspect —  or social life, is to worship a god that cannot love or bring abundant life. 

But UD does not exist to promote idolatry. It exists to reveal the heart of our Father.

This Father is so merciful. When I let Him wrest the idols of grades and homework from my hands, He pours delight and awe into those empty palms. 

When I perceive academics as the cultivation of wonder, Christ allows me to become “simply in the state of joy” like C.S. Lewis’ Jane Studdock in “That Hideous Strength.” I “embrac[e] [Homer] in heart with merry, holiday love.” I find myself choking up over the Federalist Papers and the mystery of human nature. I fall in love with the Eucharist through phenomenology. 

When we surrender our desires for academic validation, we turn our eyes from a false god and towards the Beauty who lies pierced on a tree. We find that our studies are the means by which we sail towards our eternal Ithaka.

When I die, Jesus will not log into Bannerweb and view my transcript. But He will ask if I saw His breath hovering over every page I have opened. May my heart remain at His altar alone.

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