Let It Bleed

There is no question that grades are on the rise in America, and have been for years. A report out of Princeton last week that--surprise--the "gentleman's C" has been replaced by B's and A's for standard work at that institution has returned grade inflation to the national stage.

At Princeton, between 1992 and 1997, 43.4 percent of all grades were in the A range, compared with just over 30 percent in the period from 1973 to 1977. And according to a study by Arthur Levine of Columbia Teachers' College, cited in the New York Times, the A- jumped from a mere 7 percent of all grades at four-year colleges nationwide in 1969 to 26 percent of all grades in 1994. Nor is this trend limited to colleges. According to the College Board, in 1972, 28 percent of all students taking the SAT reported having an A or B average. Twenty years later, in 1993, 83 percent claimed an A or B average.

Okay, so grades are up. The curve is rising and the scale of evaluation is a bit more crowded. At Harvard, as elsewhere, in many classes the A is now more of the rule than the exception.

So what?

Many seem to skirt the "So what" and assume rising grades are a problem. Critics both within and outside the academy claim grade inflation is a byproduct of a society uncomfortable with rejection, lacking in moral fiber and dedicated to the maxim that the customer is always right--a society in which professors and graduate students care more about keeping their jobs than about academic standards.


One has to wonder whether the motives of these grade hawks are genuine. The pride of an older generation, it seems to me, is in large part keeping this issue in the news. As it is reported that college students are being highly rewarded for meager work, somewhere a grumpy big wig is reclining in his leather office chair and saying to himself, "I worked so hard for those B+'s way back when." Those of us who took the SAT before it was "recentered" know the feeling well. How often have we heard someone's score of 1600 only to discount it with, "Well, when I took the SAT, you had to get them all right to get a 1600!" No one likes to see their accomplishments cheapened after the fact.

Two "solutions" for grade inflation are generally bandied about by these doomsdayers. The first option, already adopted by Dartmouth and Columbia, is to include the percentage of As in a given class and enrollment figures on all transcripts. But adding more numbers is not the answer. What if a class of 30 happens to enroll 20 students who work very hard and turn out very strong work? Transcript readers who see that two-thirds of those in the class received As would then wrongly discredit those grades. The only good that might come out of this proposal is that Harvard might be grossly embarrassed in printing three-figure enrollment figures on hundreds of transcripts; this could do more for class size than 10 years of U.S. News and World Report rankings.

The second option--already in effect, according to what some professors say and others do--is consciously to give out lower grades. The rumored "one A per section" rule in some Core classes is a case in point. But this plan is not wise. It drives away serious students unwilling to sacrifice their pride and, possibly, their degree of future success to appease what appears to be a professor's mean streak.

What of a college-wide initiative for lower grades? If you thought financial aid, large classes and shoddy advising were driving pre-frosh away, wait 'til Harvard is known as the cruelest place in the Ivy League. And besides, with the pressures students place on graders to give high marks and the grading expectations inculcated in high schools everywhere, such an initiative would be doomed to failure.

But are these solutions even necessary? That is, is grade inflation a problem at all? Nope.

Some claim grade inflation is a problem because it makes fair evaluation impossible, lumping the truly great with the pretty good. But the truly great, if they live up to their name, surely do not rely on grades to make their case. It's true that if 80 percent of us receive As, the task of law school admissions officers will be more difficult. They might actually have to read carefully students' recommendations, essays and rosters of extracurricular involvements. They might even need to call in all applicants for interviews. But would that really be so bad?

Others claim grade inflation is a problem since it is the threat of low grades that keeps us working. But imagine that this recurrent threat is removed. Imagine a place where you were motivated to read for section not by fear of being called on but just by the desire to learn. Grade inflation alone will not take us to this more humane place, but it is a start. For the fact is--as most students can verify from experience--we enjoy classes more in which we do well. And when we enjoy a class, we are more prone to go to it, to read for it, to learn from it.

The beautiful thing about grade inflation is that as grades keep getting higher and higher, closing in on that perfect top mark, their importance must diminish considerably. This greedy, average generation of which we are a part is gloriously shooting itself in the foot. Whether it is because we need good grades to get ahead and teachers are rightly hesitant to deny us, because inflation is somehow natural or because people in America today simply have no backbone, in the not-too-long run, the "problem" will take care of itself. We'll all have such high grades, or at least such similar grades, that everyone will be forced to give up their obsession with A's and B's. What a wonderful world it would be.

Geoffrey C. Upton '99 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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