Ok, now I'm really curious. Neither Chris Morse nor Nick Tatar knew the answer to this one, and when Chris and I searched the internet later, we couldn't find much either.

What are the historical origins of the modern ABCD/GPA grading system used in American universities today?

It's got to come from somewhere, right? But we can't find where it started. Note that we're focusing here on the ABCDF (5-point numerical, with letters standing in for number grades) system, and there are many other possible systems used elsewhere in the world, but usually they are just different numeric scales.

Here's what we've found so far.

  1. Wikipedia says it comes from a man named William Farish, and references a book by Neil Postman.
  2. In Neil Postman's Technopolgy: The surrender of culture to technology (1992), he includes the following sentence: "In point of fact, the first instance of grading students’
    papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish." That's it. He goes on to talk about how nobody knows who Farish is, really.
  3. The preceding sentence has a footnote that we... can't access because we don't have the book. Need to get our hands on this book so we can see where Postman gets his information from (or at least we're hoping that's what the footnote shows).

Postman goes on to say a few more provocative things (emphasis mine):

And yet his [Farish's] idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself... Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge.

I shall not argue here that this is a stupid or dangerous idea, only that it is peculiar. What is even more peculiar is that so many of us do not find the idea peculiar... If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did.

In every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” This is what Marx meant when he said, “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature” and creates the “conditions of intercourse” by which we relate to each other. It is what Wittgenstein meant when, in referring to our most fundamental technology, he said that language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver. And it is what Thamus wished the inventor Theuth to see.

This is, in short, an ancient and persistent piece of wisdom, perhaps most simply expressed in the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.