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To the Editors of the CRIMSON:
The widespread feeling among faculty and student body alike that provision need be made for students to diversify their education, relieved from the pressure of grades, appears to have deluded both into a proposal, a fourth course pass-fail, which despite its first hand appearance is likely to produce the contrary, a concentration in education. This unfortunate result is largely the result of the incentive structure which will remain in the grading system, and the interpretation of grades.
Under the pass-fail option, Harvard will in large part retain a graded system upon which graduate admissions committees will make their judgments. This will necessarily be based on three course grades since the fourth course graded pass-fail will provide little if any information. The pressure to achieve high grades will thus be concentrated on three courses rather than four. The fourth course, pass-fail, is thus likely to receive little attention from students once the first hourlies must be faced. The sorts of efforts which the need for a "passing" grade may induce need not be dwelled upon, but "little" attention may be almost synonymous with none in view of the performance meriting a failing grade at Harvard College. (In 1966-67, two hundred some E's were given, seven tenths of one percent of all grades in the College.) The pass-fail distinction is essentially meaningless for the great majority of students. No one, of course, has entertained the idea of tailoring the present proposal to those students for which a failing grade is a serious possibility.
This channeling of student efforts into three courses is by no means a reflection on the student body's ambition or initiative, nor that grades are a necessary means of soliciting effort (though they are clearly important since no one appears to regard the right to audit as a suitable substitute for a pass-fail fourth course); rather, this is an inevitable result of the pressure to achieve grades created externally from the use of grade averages, the relief of which is the accepted motive, and rightly so, for the current proposal. Moreover, this concentration in efforts by students to three courses will almost surely be accompanied by an implicit reinterpretation by the faculty of what constitutes the requirements for a course; the faculty almost surely will fairly quickly adjust its requirements so as to match student efforts, each course constituting a one third load. In short, only a far more drastic change (for example, to a complete or nearly complete pass-fail system) would provide any measure of relief from the incentives which arise from the interpretation of grades outside the university as it is presently practiced.
The present proposal is also likely to result in a considerable disadvantage to those students who either decide in or change their major field "late" in their four years, or who choose to do graduate work in a field other than their major. To these groups of students the chance to choose the pass-fail option in their last year or two will be foreclosed by the need at that point to take and present a graded record of accomplishment in courses important to graduate school admission.
Graduate school admission may, in fact, induce students, especially upperclassmen, to reject the pass-fail option on the supposition that, all other things equal, four courses with fine grades is a better showing than three (and many admissions committees will face large numbers of applicants where, indeed, all other things do appear equal).
That such a concentration in education which would result from the present pass-fail proposal is not intended is evidenced by the rejection in the December faculty meeting of Professor Handlin's proposal of a simple three graded course system. To the extend that the incentive structure implicit in the present pass-fail proposal has been appropriately represented above, this vote on Handlin's amendment is essentially a rejection of the present pass-fail proposal. What is at issue is not the objective, but the means; the pass-fail option as presently proposed is clearly unsatisfactory.
An alternative proposal consistent with objectives underlying the current discussion and the retention of a grade system which would appear to be a much superior means of achieving the desired objectives would be the option for students to take a fifth course pass-fail. This is different in one important respect from the right to audit, namely, that a record is available of a student's choice of direction of these efforts (a difference which students may value considerably). Students will argue that this implies the right to diversify their education only "after hours," and the administration will suggest that these added courses will increase the total education bill. An agreement by the faculty to the general effect that "in appreciation of the fact that most students will be taking advantage of the right to take a fifth course pass-fail, the four course work requirement of both parties, though lessened" might tend to satisfy the arguments of both parties, though the remarks above imply, of course, that neither student nor faculty will likely take the fifth course commitment that seriously.
Unfortunately, in the context of a graded system, and given the present use of grades, there is no marginal change by which the university can induce students to channel much effort outside of graded courses. The fifth course proposal comes the closest, and is consistent with the premise that the allocation of effort implicit in a four course graded system is preferred to three, a premise substantialted by the faculty's action on the Handlin Amendment. The faculty and student body need reconsider the present pass-fail vote in light of that vote. Mahlon Straszheim Assistant Professor Department of Economics
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