How Low Can We Go?

The recent grade inflation controversy began with William Cole's article in the January Chronicle of Higher Education. Cole later wrote to us in response to an editorial column in favor of grade inflation. This letter originally ran on April 12.

As I said in my now-infamous article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, by rewarding mediocrity we discourage excellence. An A should be a goal worth striving for, not something to be taken for granted.

Inflation inherently devalues currency, whether it be grades or money. The admissions director of a top-six law school told me that cum or magna degrees no longer help applicants from Harvard get into his school. While he is certainly more knowledgeable about the honors situation here than the average employer, word is getting around. Eventually honors and good grades won't help you at all--but the lack' thereof will stick out like a sore thumb. If the Harvard faculty implemented (and publicized) a strict grading policy, no one would forget how hard it is to get in here in the first place.

By protecting students from failure we are not helping them--we are merely guaranteeing that they will be unable to cope with it when they encounter it later on. Failure, we seem to have forgotten, is a part of life. Getting a D or an E should not be a disgrace; it should be an experience a student learns to bounce back from.

Easy grading in art, literature, and history courses tend to draw lazy students to the humanities while pushing those eager for a challenge toward the sciences and the social sciences. All areas of inquiry will suffer over the long term, as students choose their fields according to their personalities, rather than their talents and interests.


Lax grading allows instructors--of all ranks--to slide by without doing much of anything; it's easy to give a paper an A and write no comments. But a stricter policy would force all teachers to examine and criticize work more carefully. Giving high grades for mediocre work fosters contempt for the instructor, the field, the institution, and academia in general.

When I was a first year in college, I planned to study political science. I took a required first-year core course in literature, and the professor got into the annoying habit of giving me C's and D's on my papers. Finally, on the eighth and final essay of the year, I got an A-. I felt--rightly--that I had acquired a new skill, that I had learned to excel in an area in which I had been close to failure. Exulting this experience, I chose to study literature. Of course, my instructor could have given me A's all along, thus depriving me of this feeling of genuine accomplishment, a sentiment many Harvard undergraduates will never know.

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