According to the Registrar's statistics, courtesy of Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53, nearly 75 percent of the grades distributed at the College last year were B-pluses or better. More than half of those marks were A-minuses or A's. And most of us felt that we had earned those grades. Our performance in high school made us accustomed to ranking at the top of our class, even if that class resides in Harvard Yard. But even Harvard students should not be able to perform that well by Harvard standards--assuming such standards exist.
It was unfortunate that Mansfield could not help clouding the issue by attributing Harvard's grade inflation to affirmative action programs. Last week, during a Government 1061 lecture, Mansfield himself noted that history is often nothing but a collection of mere "details" that detract from the larger issue at hand. Indeed, the issue at hand is that of grade inflation, and it matters not how Harvard College found itself in this predicament. What matters is admitting its existence, convincing ourselves of its dangers and resolving to reverse the trend.
When we chose to matriculate at Harvard College, we chose to include ourselves in an elite, intellectually challenging academic community. Many of us had opportunities to attend other colleges, but for one reason or another we favored fair Harvard above the rest. In making this decision, we opted to forgo a higher grade point average for intellectual rigor and the opportunity to participate in a cerebral environment. We raised the stakes of our own academic expectations. Or at least we did so in theory, for we certainly have not done so in practice.
As it stands now, the most arduous task Harvard undergraduates face is the one of convincing Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis '73 and her admissions committee gurus to accept us into the College. After matriculation, it seems we need only to attend sections and complete assignments by their due dates to graduate. Heck, we need only do that much to propel ourselves into Group II.
But in choosing to attend Harvard, we chose to surround ourselves with the academic upper crust, and we should therefore be compared with and evaluated against the performance of our peers. And if the coveted Harvard diploma is to mean what it is meant to mean--namely the combined McKinsey, Mozart and Mercedes of the academic world--then our GPA's should reflect that rigor. Even if the average Harvard students can perform above the average elsewhere, they shouldn't expect--or be able--to do as well at Harvard.
What's more, students attend Harvard for various reasons. Some came here for the intellectually engaging environment, some for the opportunities inevitably associated with the Harvard name and some for the outside-the-classroom experience. Many undergraduates devote themselves entirely to academics--they sleep in the terminal room, sweat over the titles of their papers and do little else beyond the four or five or six classes in which they enrolled at the beginning of the semester. At the other end of the spectrum lie the Harvard students who follow the guidance of Mark Twain and never let their schooling interfere with their education, either. In truth, academics rank terribly low on the priority scale for many undergraduates. These students certainly learn and develop during their four years at Harvard, but not necessarily in the conventional classroom setting.
I do not mean to endorse one type of undergraduate experience over any other. We cannot ignore, however, the fact that grades evaluate just the academic component of our college years. And the ever-agonizing drop from an A-minus to a B-plus or a B is not significant enough to distinguish those who devote the majority of their waking hours to organizations, community service and, dare I say, campus publications from those who immerse themselves in academics. Transcripts should reflect--and reward--the efforts of those who labor over their classes and, as a result, perform exceptionally well. After all, extracurricular-minded undergrads will always have their brawny resumes.
Undergraduates should know when to call a spade a spade--especially because most professors and teaching fellows are not doing it for us. It makes a mockery of our institution and our diplomas, not to mention the dogged efforts of those students who devote themselves wholly to academics, that so many of us supposedly perform so well. We made the choice to attend Harvard, and once here, we make the choice how to spend our time and direct our efforts. And if our goal is to preserve the academic integrity of this institution, which has made Harvard such a respectable pillar of higher education, then we had best puff our chests and deflate our grades.
Jordana R. Lewis '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.