The narrator and Chris begin their hike into the mountains. He compares their trek through the mountains to Phaedrus’s mental odyssey towards discovering Quality. The narrator divides Phaedrus’s thought on Quality into two phases: in the first, he refused to establish a definition for the term. In the second, he set up a rigid structure to explain Quality’s relationship with the universe. This second phase was what drove Phaedrus insane. The narrator explains that he has been left with fragments of Phaedrus’s thought, and has tried to use them to piece together the man’s conclusions.
The narrator and Chris’s trip into the mountains acts as a metaphor for the odyssey into rarefied philosophical terrain that Phaedrus takes in search of Quality.
Phaedrus’s nonmetaphysical explanation of Quality hinges on his teaching of rhetoric. He gives students assignments aimed at teaching them how to make their own observations instead of simply reiterating memorized facts or techniques. He realizes that the best way to instill this kind of thinking may be to abolish grade-giving in education, and asks one of his brighter students to write an essay on the topic. She delivers a persuasive essay, and Phaedrus decides to withhold his students’ grades for an entire quarter to test the model.
Phaedrus realizes that, although he doesn’t quite know what Quality is, the institutional setting of the university likely stifles Quality. For this reason, he eschews one of the most inflexible and institutional components of higher education: grades.
On the hike, Chris acts stubbornly and refuses to do a task he’s asked to do. The narrator continues to muse about Phaedrus’s new grade-less teaching scheme. The goal is to discourage students who aren’t interested in education for its own sake. This way, students will not be forced to behave like beasts of burden, and their motivation for schooling will be knowledge-based, not grade-based. At first, students are confused by Phaedrus’s refusal to grade their work. Gradually, though, the A students begin to turn in excellent work, and soon after, B and C students also begin joining class discussions with unprecedented enthusiasm. Only the D and F students refused to participate out of panicked confusion.
Phaedrus’s dramatic alteration of educational conventions is jarring to his students, but it eventually succeeds in expanding their outlooks and enhancing their ability to perform Quality work independent of institutional coercion.
At the end of the term, Phaedrus surveyed his students to see how they liked the grade-less system. An overall majority preferred grades, but the best students showed a strong preference for not being graded. Phaedrus observes that giving grades serves to obscure bad teaching, but also notes that it is unfair of him to refuse to give grades without giving students a positive goal to work towards. He investigates alternative systems, but next semester gives up on the system and grades normally again. In the narrator’s words, he awaited a “seed crystal” to solidify his thought.
The results of Phaedrus’s experiment show that he has certainly made progress in his quest to understand the nature of quality. However, his inability to provide his students with a positive goal indicates that there is still work to be done to come up with a viable, constructive concept of Quality.