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Taking the Air out of Education

By Nicholas F.B. Smyth, Crimson Staff Writer

Next month, when students get their grades in the mail, many of us will feel the repercussions of last year’s media hubbub over grade inflation. Following the release of figures that showed over 50 percent of grades given at Harvard College are an A or A-, the administration has been putting pressure on the chairs of every department, to drive grades down. Some have suggested that the administration originally felt pressure from disgruntled alumni, so of whom are shocked that some many students at Harvard receive such high evaluations.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence, then, that the biggest critic of grade inflation at Harvard is an alumnus-turned-professor. Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 is a right-wing maverick who loves causing a stir. Mansfield’s philosophy revolves around an abstract concept of fairness, and he decided last fall that Gov 97a—a requirement for all government concentrators—would be graded such that no more than one fifth of students received an A or A-.

Another alumnus professor who has been equally miffed, though less publicly than Mansfield, with grade inflation. Linguistics Department Chair Jay H. Jasanoff ’63 said, “almost half of undergraduates today do better than I did my best year.” To him, whether or not current students deserve these grades is not a question: “the same degree of smarts now gets higher grades than it did [when I was an undergrad].” So Jasanoff, like many other department chairs, has been pushing his professors to combat grade inflation.

Associate Professor of Linguistics Bert R. Vaux has suffered from this pressure. He asserts that in 1999, Jasanoff “ordered that [the number of students receiving an A or A-] should be no more than 25 percent.” Jasanoff denies giving a specific directive but admits that the 25 percent target “corresponds approximately to my philosophy.” Regardless, enrollment numbers in Vaux’s two big courses, Social Analysis 34: “Knowledge of Language” and Linguistics 80: “Dialects of English,” dropped dramatically. Vaux believes—quite rightly—that students avoided a class that was “graded much harder than any other class in my department or any other class in the college of comparable size.”

It is absolutely deplorable that students would be driven away from a popular and enlightening class—with a very talented teacher who actually reaches out to undergraduates—because they feared tougher grading. The primary purpose of grading is to provide feedback and encouragement for students to seek knowledge to the best of their abilities. The purpose of grading is not to please alumni, or to prove that Harvard is tougher than other schools. Grading is certainly not designed to discourage students from seeking knowledge they otherwise would—and yet that is exactly what Jasanoff’s policy did.

This spring, Vaux reduced the requirements of Linguistics 80 to bring them closer in line with other large Harvard courses, and over 500 students enrolled. He says he passed on to his teaching fellows Jasanoff’s order to limit A and A- grades, although Vaux suggested a limit of 50 percent instead of 25 percent. Still, he says, “This being my final year, we intend to go more on what students deserve,” although he added that it does not necessarily mean half his students will get As.

Indeed, that is the most logical and fair way to use the grading system. As Vaux says, “In my ideal grading world, you would set out the requirements of a class, and if they demonstrate that they’ve mastered them, then they get an A. But I’m not allowed to use that sort of grading system here.” Most students share Vaux’s belief that grades should be absolute, not relative. If I do well enough to get an A, I shouldn’t be denied one because somebody else did relatively better than me.

Under Mansfield’s system, ruthless competition takes place between the students who yearning for an A, which makes students less likely to help one another. Some students in the government tutorial simply give up, preferring to put forward their best efforts in classes where their toils will be rewarded. The most determined people never know when to stop talking, because they know class participation grades will be competitive too. Students lose faith in the system that is designed to provide helpful feedback.

In a large class like Linguistics 80, it is especially important that requirements are clearly laid out for students, so that they can be clear on what is expected of them. In addition, since Linguistics 80 attracts many students who are non-concentrators, a quota is harmful because the mere idea of it scares students away. Quotas are wrong because they are arbitrary and increase the chances that students will get grades lower than what they deserve. Furthermore, they’re not at all necessary to achieving the wider task of raising standards—if that indeed is the goal of people like Mansfield and Jasanoff. There are many classes at Harvard that lack quotas but still have such difficult requirements that few students earn grades of A.

Jasanoff says he is “interested in seeing to it that our courses are responsibly graded.” But, as Vaux points out, “In practice, grading is profoundly subjective.” As such, professors must try their best to set clear requirements for their students. If 70 percent of students produce A-quality work in a class, then so be it. We students are motivated to try our best when we think an A is within reach but not guaranteed. Arbitrary quotas are no way to make us do better work.

Nicholas F.B. Smyth ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Dunster House.

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