Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2002 / 8 Adar, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
MUGGER
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Making the grade

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- IN thinking back on the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the big picture of defeat and disunion sets off the smaller tableaux: Jane Fonda and the POWs; burning draft cards and burning bras; bad hair, bad drugs, and later, bad Oliver Stone movies. The fact that 91 percent of Harvard seniors graduated with honors last spring doesn't usually stream into this particular consciousness. But maybe it should.

According to a report sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, grade inflation may have begun with the Vietnam War: specifically, with student resistance to the draft, and with faculty reluctance to grade student resisters toughly enough to force them out of school and into military service. As a professor who felt guilty about being a draft-deferred graduate student at the time put it, "When grading time came, and we knew that giving a C meant that our student (who deserved a D) would go into the jungle, we did one better and gave him a B." This might be called spreading guilt by evaluation.

According to the report's authors -- a panel of academics hailing from Harvard, Boston College, University of Pennsylvania and St. John's University -- such "courtesies" soon became the norm. This latest extension of Vietnam Syndrome sounds plausible enough, particularly when coupled with the fact that as the baby boom matriculated, a whopping 300,000 new professors were hired in the 1960s, doubling the size of the professorate.

These new profs, the report notes, were usually "young, anti-war individuals who identified with the values of the students." The new "student-centered" faculty "collided" with the old "institutionally-centered" faculty, and we all know who won. To the "student-centered" victors went the spoils -- which included control of all the A's and honors of higher education.

It turns out these professors weren't necessarily "student-centered" for nothing. As grades improved, the report tells us, so, too, did student evaluations of their professors -- evaluations that may play a significant role in a professor's bid for tenure and career advancement. The research shows that courses in which professors dole out higher grades tend to be courses in which students turn in higher evaluations. An even exchange (an A for an A), you might say -- but kind of crooked all the same, despite the theoretical rationales for handing out good marks for less-than-good work.

"Some professors hold the view that low grades discourage students and frustrate their progress," says the report. "Some contend it is defensible to give a student a higher grade than he or she deserves in order to motivate those who are anxious or poorly prepared by their earlier secondary school experiences. ... A more radical view (more radical?) holds that it is inappropriate for a professor to perform the assessment function because it violates the relationship that should exist between a faculty member and students engaged in the collaborative process of inquiry. Some critics of grades argue that it is a distorting, harsh, and punitive practice."

Guantanamo Bay aside - -does Amnesty International know what's going on at dear, old Alma Mater? Meanwhile, the report's authors believe most professors tend to see grades as they do, as "an efficient way to communicate valid information, but only if a meaningful range of grades exist." To that end, they suggest something that could wilt the vines off the ivy-covered walls out there: "For evaluations to accomplish their intended purpose we must question a currently popular assumption in psychology and education that virtually all students can excel academically across the board -- and in life as well."

We must? If we question that assumption -- which insists that people are separated by degrees of self-esteem, rather than degrees of talent or application -- then we have to question other assumptions of sameness on which modern academia is based. That is, maybe grade inflation is best suited to a milieu in which all hierarchies of excellence have been generally flattened. Maybe an unrankable scale of personal achievement (grade inflation) makes perfect sense in the context of an unrankable scale of cultural achievement (multicultural relativism). "A"... "C"... George Washington ... Caesar Chavez -- they're all the same. But if, as this report soundly suggests, academia decides to reinvigorate the distinctions between A and C again, does it follow that academia will decide to reinvigorate the distinctions between George Washington and Caesar Chavez?

Big if.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

Up


02/11/02: Studying student visas
02/06/02: Understanding arrogance
02/04/02: The professor's war
01/29/02: Disconnected dialogue
01/23/02: Anti-Indiscrimination
01/18/02: How much is enough?
01/15/02: Oh brothers, where art thou?
01/10/02: Air on the side of caution
01/04/02: Blacks seeing red at Harvard
01/02/02: Clinton's campaign continues
12/26/01: A tale of two exhibitions
12/24/01: Taliban Idyll
12/19/01: Right is right
12/17/01: Hillary strikes out
12/13/01: Lost files, lost presidency
12/10/01: Revolutionaries never grow up
12/05/01: Immigration reform talk is not just for 'haters' anymore
12/03/01: A new symbol of justice
11/30/01: Beyond morality
11/26/01: Can't keep a good man down
11/20/01: Tough talk at the United Nations
11/19/01: Hollywood's other battle
11/14/01: What's the matter with Sara Jane?
11/09/01: A beef with bin Laden's Beef Noodles
11/07/01: Facing up to the FBI's past mistakes
11/02/01: A school that teaches patriots to shutup
10/30/01: The gap between Islam and peace
10/26/01: The ties that bind (and gag)
10/24/01: This war is more than Afghanistan
10/22/01: The fatuous fatwa
10/19/01: Left out
10/16/01: Whose definition of terrorism?
10/11/01: Post-stress disorder
10/08/01: How the West has won
10/01/01: Good, bad or ... diplomacy
09/28/01: Drawing a line in stone
09/21/01: Prejudice or prudence?
09/14/01: When our dead will finally rest in hallowed ground
09/07/01: We want our #$%^&*() audience back!
08/24/01: The transformation from Green Mountain State to Green Activist State is all but complete
08/17/01: Enlightenment at Yale
08/10/01: From oppressors to victims, a metamorphosis
08/03/01: Opening the dormitory door: College romance in the New Century
08/01/01: How-To Hackdom: The dubious art of writing books about writing books
07/20/01: Hemming about Hemmings
07/13/01: Justice has not been served in the Loiuma police brutality case
06/22/01: When PC parades are too 'mainstream'
06/22/01: When "viewpoint discrimination" in our schools was not nearly so gnarly a notion
06/15/01: Lieberman flaunts mantle of perpetual aggrievement
06/07/01: Is graciousness the culprit?
06/01/01: The bright side of the Jeffords defection
05/29/01: Campus liberals should be more careful
05/18/01: 'Honest Bill' Clinton and other Ratheresian Logic
05/11/01: Dodging balls, Bugs, and 'brilliance'
05/04/01: Foot in mouth disease and little lost Tories
04/20/01:The last classic Clinton cover-up
04/20/01: D-Day, Schmee-Day
04/06/01: For heaven's sake, a little decency!
03/30/01: The sweet sound of slamming doors and clucking feminists
03/23/01: America's magazines and the 'ick-factor'
03/09/01: Felony neglect
03/02/01: Who's sorry now?
02/23/01: 'Ecumenical niceness' and other latter-day American gifts to the world
02/16/01: Elton and Eminem: Royal dirge-icist meets violent fantasist
02/12/01: If only ...

© 2001, Diana West