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Last week the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) interrupted the tranquility of fair Harvard when it released a carefully constructed report on that scourge of modern higher education, grade inflation. To my utter shock and disappointment, the statistics officially confirmed the truth of Harvey C. Mansfield’s longstanding accusation that Harvard grades are inflated.
Grade inflation is one of the most pressing problems Harvard faces today: It is a sad state of affairs when professors are unable to reward stellar students with grades that reflect their exemplary work. Today, even the most dedicated students no longer feel obliged to submit their best work, because they are guaranteed at least a B+. In addition, as some have so eloquently pointed out, employers will be unable to make distinctions between students, and Harvard’s reputation could be tarnished in the larger community.
After carefully studying the statistics and consulting with many of the parties involved, I have come up with a modest proposal that could very well rid Harvard of her pernicious nemesis.
I humbly propose that the best solution to the problem of grade inflation would be a return to student rank. In each class, large and small, the professor should list the students in order, from the brightest to the dullest. Only then should the professor begin assigning grades, awarding the top students with glowing A’s, and slowly working down the ladder to the dismal depths of D’s and F’s.
This solution solves all of the problems caused by grade inflation, with a few added benefits. With rank, there would be no difficulty in guaranteeing a bell curve in every class. Gone will be the days of the Gentleman’s A—we can standardize the grade distributions across ranking, so that the smartest students are clearly distinguishable from the class dregs. Class rank will reintroduce a healthy dose of competition between students, reinvigorating the incentive system that grade inflation has dulled. Employers will have an easy time making distinctions between students, and Harvard will once again be considered the most glorious University in the land.
Let me detail how the program would work. To make sure that the process is completely fair, each week the professor should post the current rankings of all the students in the class, with the expected grade distribution next to their names. In this way, everyone will be able to keep track of their progress within the class, and know whom they’ll have to bump off next week to move up in the standings.
But wait, you cry! There’s an unpardonable loophole in this system. What if a class is of a particularly hard-headed variety? Should the bozos benefit from a serendipitously favorable distribution of ignorance?
Of course not, dear reader. With ranking, the solution to this problem would be simple: who says that the top grade in the class must be an A? If a professor is disappointed with a lackluster bunch, just start with a B and count down to F—easily nipping laggard classes in the bud.
If properly instituted, student rank would also help curb academic dishonesty. We will no longer have the problem of students helping each other with homework. There will be no more study groups and no more mooching. For the really creative professors, the system can be further adapted such that students who tell on cheating friends can swap up to take the cheater’s ranking.
To fit with the new atmosphere on campus, the Bureau of Study Council can begin offering new classes for the less aggressive members of the class, including: “how to make others look dumb in section,” “favorite TF foods” and “why it’s okay to suck.”
But, there’s much, much more. Alumni can set up new awards, endowing scholarships for the student who fills their old rank in class. The 23rd student in Introductory Physics could receive a bonus from a nostalgic alum.
If these scholarships hurt the incentive system, we can insert more creative policies to keep students working at the tippy-top of their ability. Each semester we can thin the herd by culling the underachievers. If you know you will be expelled if you don’t pull a 250th in that Core, you will start working hard. By cutting out the lazy, we would make Harvard a more prestigious University, where people do their best work, or as the weakest link, they leave—goodbye. But why stop there?
The atmosphere on campus could progress until we developed a culture of the game Assassin, only for real! Why bother knocking off your House comrades when you can go after that annoying sniveler who’s right above you in the rankings? Extra points for orchestrating a particularly clever demise. Arsenic in General Wong’s? A quick push down the Science Center stairs? Harvard would be helping us hone that killer instinct.
Now dear reader, stop grinning—I know you approve of this plan because you see yourself on top of the heap. But until I graduate, the highest spot available is a distant number two.
Robert J. Fenster ’03 is a biology concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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