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Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2002 / 8 Adar, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Making the grade -- 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.


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© 2001, Diana West