One of my more entertaining moments as a student was when, when I was studying for my first graduate degree and the program made me take an undergraduate statistics course because one was missing from my undergraduate transcript. Although I did not feel as if I needed to take the course, I did so and my grades were quite good, good enough to be better than anyone else in the class. This led my fellow students, who were all about five years or so younger than I was, to be upset about my presence in class and concerned that I was ruining their curve. The teacher explained to them that I was in a different category than they were and that my grades did not have an effect on theirs at all, and once my students understood this they were much more friendly. I was struck by the folly of thinking about grading on the curve as well as the toxic nature of competition when people think that age and maturity grant one an unfair advantage in studying because, alas, they do.
One of the biggest problems about the thought that we are graded on the curve is the fact that it takes our attention from our overall performance to comparing ourselves among ourselves. There are a few reasons why this is less than desirable. For one, to behave in such a fashion is not wise, as it is written in 2 Corinthians 10:12: “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” This lack of wisdom is at least troublesome in two ways. For one, it takes our attention off of the absolute standard by which we are judged and leads us to judge ourselves by the far less exacting standard of our peers. We may know that we are not doing very well, but so long as we are doing better than those around us, we are not doing too badly at all. (Alternatively, this sort of focus leads us to disregard our doing well if everyone else is doing well also, thus making us less appreciative merely because the success or blessings we enjoy are general and not particular in nature, which is also an evil.)
There is another reason, though, in comparing ourselves among ourselves, and it is less obvious in nature. One of the great evils in our trying to grade ourselves on the curve is that we are not often sound judges of ourselves and other people. It is remarkable just how little self knowledge is contained by some people, and how poorly we judge others in light of our poor self-knowledge. Again, there are at least two ways that this affects us. For one, we think far better of ourselves than happens to be the case. I recently spoke, for example, and commented on the fact that I do not particularly enjoy spending time with people who are intensely critical and negative, but did not find any of the people who I would have thought to be such reflect to themselves, because people who are intensely critical often think of themselves as being helpful in their advice and “constructive criticism,” rather than seeing themselves as they are. (As someone who spends a great deal of time and effort reviewing things critically, I am aware this applies to myself as well as to others.) Similarly, we often think far worse of others than is the case. Being unjust judges is part of being an ordinary and unredeemed human being, and there are plenty of those to go around. Let us not be among them.