By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

Why I Don’t Want a 4.0

There’s a certain infatuation people have with a 4.0 GPA. Maybe it’s because it signals the payoff of discipline and hard work or because it props open doors for certain career opportunities. I don’t discount the benefits of having a 4.0, but I believe there are practical drawbacks to grabbing those idyllic digits, matched with larger, philosophically problematic issues.

One of the scariest things about having a 4.0 is keeping your 4.0. Every homework assignment, research paper, quiz or test could be the feather that tips the scales, the single slipup that costs you semesters of perfect letter grades. Almost invariably, this can engender constant stress and anxiety, fretting over how well you need to score on your next assignments to counterbalance the A- on your last one or calculating which scores your class grade can afford to absorb while hovering over the A- marker.

These feelings can be amplified in certain classes where systems like the bell curve — in which grade ranges depend on their distribution over the class — are adopted. Here, it’s not only your own grades that need to be accounted for but now your fellow students’ success can weigh on your future. Courses can boil down this ecosystem of education into a battleground for the survival of the fittest.

The effect on your education, however, doesn’t stop there. Now, classes cannot be selected solely (or in large part) due to the professor’s own merits or the class’ value, but its rigor — in getting an A, that is — needs to be prioritized. For many, this all comes down to stress, angst, competition and a diluted college education. A 4.0 does not seem to be worth the hefty cost.

Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, more commonly known as Rav Kook, has shifted my perspective on life, Judaism and everything in between; the pursuit of a 4.0 is no exception.

In “Ein Aya,” his aggadic commentary on the Gemara,  Rav Kook draws a profound understanding from the teaching that “A person should not take rushed steps” from Masechet Berachot 43b. Speaking with a broader application for life, he writes, “When one finally realizes that being totally perfect is unattainable, one can finally understand that one’s true greatness is found in the holy journey of constantly becoming just a little bit better” (Berachot 2, translation from Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, “The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook,” pg. 55).

Essentially, perfection is like a limit in calculus: It’s an end you never reach. Humans are not supposed to be perfect, not by ourselves nor any Torah standards. We are supposed to strive for perfection as a means for our true purpose: growth. 

Rabbi David Aaron once shared the following analogy with me: If we were climbing up Mt. Everest, the true greatness, enjoyment and fulfillment would be found in every moment of the journey, the progression of our own betterment. Whether or not we make it to the top shouldn’t affect the journey’s value, as the focus is on a dynamic form of perfection, the dynamism of becoming perfect without expecting to be perfect. Thus, investing ourselves in having a 4.0 is centered on procuring perfection, being the best as the ultimate goal. However, to be human is to be flawed, to make mistakes and to have room for growth. 

This should not be misconstrued as a call for mediocrity or condemnation of ambition — far from it. Everyone should be encouraged to achieve the best grades and accomplishments they can. Striving for perfection isn’t bad per se, rather it’s when we equate success with perfection that we’re making a mistake. Striving for a 4.0 isn’t wrong, but if getting that 4.0 is the only way you’ll be “successful,” then there’s a problem.

Our lives — whether that be now in college or in the future with a career — are not going to be static, and that’s okay. It’s highly desirable to graduate on the dean’s list or summa cum laude, but how much effort did we invest in that pursuit? This is a question that’s too often ignored, and it’s to our own detriment.

I want the best GPA I can get, and I’m going to work hard to ensure that. But the uneasiness of maintaining a perfect record — one unblemished by even a particularly difficult class, an unfair teacher or circumstances beyond my control — is not worth it. And while I want the best grades I can get, I know the more pressing focus is the effort I invest in my studies along the way.

Photo Caption: Furst Hall
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University