Scholarship Deflation

Harvard's quest to end grade inflation is killing student academics

As grades come in for the first semester, some students may be disappointed with their scores as the College has made it clear that fighting grade inflation is one of its top priorities. At a study break in Adams House last year, University President Lawrence H. Summers said he believed the current grading system lacked integrity. Similar statements have been made by others in the administration implying that grade inflation is some horrible crisis that threatens to destroy the College.

It isn’t.

While no one wants professors giving away A’s like candy, the recommended cures for grade inflation are far worse than the ailment itself.

Take the bell curve for example. Students sit down for lecture on the first day, and their grades have already been determined. True, each individual has not yet been given a grade, but the number of A’s, A-‘s, et cetera, is already decided. If grades are supposed to be a measure of each student’s eventual mastery of the course material, how can a professor have figured out the grades before students have even been taught? The bell curve requires that professors have the skills of Carnac the Magnificent and can predict the distribution of their students’ talents and abilities before the undergraduates have had chance to show them off. While Harvard professors are some of the most talented people in the world, none of them has that kind of prophetic power.

Perhaps worse than the bell curve’s rigid predestination is that the curve stifles students’ interest in the material and actually ensures a sub par effort from many undergraduates. A friend of mine recently provided me with an example. She was assigned her first paper for a class, and was determined to do well on it. She spent a week outlining, drafting, rewriting—making sure she had covered every point and counterpoint, every nuance in her paper. The result of this incredible effort was a B+. When the next paper was assigned, she decided that such exertion was futile, wrote the paper in six hours the night before it was due, and got a B/B+.

This story is far from uncommon. It is one heard again and again throughout the College. The result of this attitude is a lack of interest in the material and a lack of discussion of the ideas and concepts that are taught. Simply put, the bell curve kills the desire to be an academic and develop intellectually. Why should students participate in section? Since the majority of the class knows that they will unavoidably earn a B, there is no incentive to speak. Why complete the readings? A student knows all she has to do is perform better than the kid who sleeps through lecture, and that’s not too hard. In the end, the glut of middling grades given by a bell curve does not reward the extra effort students put in, leading to a feeling of apathy and defeatism among undergrads.

Devoting so much energy to ensuring a tidy distribution of grades is a misallocation of the College’s efforts. Rather, they should focus on teaching and learning by improving the process of teaching fellow selection and introducing more seminars and tutorials, whose small class sizes provide great opportunities for real academic growth. Nurturing scholarship should be the College’s primary goal, and the silly fight to end grade inflation will prevent the College from doing so.

Andrew B. English ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is an economics concentrator in Cabot House.