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Riesman Says Rising Grades Pose Threat to Meritocracy


David Riesman '31, Ford Professor of Social Sciences, said yesterday that an accelerating rise in college grades across the country may represent a threat to the meritocracy.

A recent New York Times article noted a nationwide rise with only Southern schools bucking the tread.

The Times said about half of the Harvard Class of 1961 received honors as compared with over two-thirds of last June's class. At Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin cumulative averages have risen 10 and 12 per cent respectively in the last five years. Other schools display similar patterns.

In contrast, mean verbal S A T scores of high school senior have declined over the same period from 471 (out of a possible 800) in 1965 to 454 in 1970.

Riesman, on sabbatical leave at Princeton, called the rise in grades "a move away from meritocracy." He said it undermined a rigid rating of people according to intelligence.

"Meritocracy has been softened, moderated, but not defeated. The eventual outcome depends a good deal on the economy and job market," he added.

Riesman said that easy grading allows the affluent to maintain their status while it devalues the efforts of hard working students from blue-collar families. He foresaw this as a new source of conflict between the "already arrived" and the "upwardly mobile."

The Times article offered varied reasons for the current inflation: the rise of independent study and pass-fail grading, compensation for disadvantaged and minority students, anti-authoritarian sectionmen, and smarter and more serious students.

Although few students complain about the greater abundance of A's and B's faculty reaction to the tread has been mixed.

Riesman said, "there's a feeling (among college faculties) we've got to tighten standards."

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