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All shall have prizes
Apr 12th 2001
From The Economist print edition

EVERY so often academic squabbles are worth treating as more than just up-market versions of "The Jerry Springer Show". Harvard University is having exactly such a squabble at the moment. The instigator is Harvey C. Mansfield, a political philosopher whose soft-spoken manner belies a taste for public controversy; the subject is the rampant grade-inflation under which so many American students now take it for granted that they will be given an A for work that 20 years ago would have got a C; and the debate he has set off is challenging the cloying culture of self-esteem that stretches well beyond Harvard.

The whole thing started when Mr Mansfield, whose tough grades earned him the nickname "C-minus", declared that he was no longer willing to punish his students by giving them realistic grades. Henceforward he would give them two grades: an "ironic" grade that would go on their official records, and a realistic grade that he would reveal to them only in private. In this way Harvard students could enjoy the challenge of measuring themselves against real standards without having their gleaming resumés sullied.

"Ironic" is a gentle word for Harvard's grading system. About half of Harvard's students get an A-minus or above. Only 6% receive a C-plus or lower. Some Harvard apologists justify this inflated system on the ground that their university selects the best and brightest. But aren't grades supposed to establish relative merits? Aren't "elite" institutions supposed to measure people against the highest possible standards? And aren't serious teachers supposed to point out their pupils' weaknesses as well as their strengths?

None of this would matter if Harvard were alone in taking the name of excellence in vain. But grade-inflation is almost universal in American education. Outstanding students are compared with Einstein. Abject failures are praised as "differently abled". Even the hard sciences have started diluting their standards in order to compete with the humanities, where cheating is so much easier.

Why have academics allowed their standards to become so debased? Mr Mansfield provoked an outcry when he put some of the blame on affirmative action, the policy of providing places to some people on the basis of their race. University administrators accused him of making "divisive" charges without a "shred of evidence" to back them up. The divisive bit is certainly true, but Mr Mansfield could hardly provide the proof when the university administration keeps the relevant student transcripts under lock and key. He was simply relying on the only tools at his disposal: personal experience (he has been on the Harvard faculty since 1962) and circumstantial evidence: grade-inflation followed the introduction of affirmative action.

The debate about affirmative action is arguably a red herring. Three less controversial but much more pernicious things probably matter more. The first is the cult of self-esteem. For years fashionable educators have been arguing that the worst thing you can do to young people is to damage their sensitive egos with criticism. "If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn," goes a popular screed handed out to the parents of pre-schoolers. "If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate; if a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself."

This might be defensible when applied to the kindergarten. The trouble is that this therapeutic philosophy is spreading throughout the educational system. The idea is at the heart of "constructivist maths", which emphasises the importance of feeling good about maths, rather than mastering basic techniques. It is at the heart of "Ebonics", which argues that black children should not be penalised for adopting "black speech patterns". And it is at the heart of the "I love me" sessions that proliferate in American elementary schools, in which children complete the phrase "I am..." with words such as "beautiful", "lovable" and "great", when "spoilt", "bored" and "violent" often seem more accurate.

Resisting this claptrap is made no easier by the fact that so many leftish university professors routinely argue that traditional standards are little more than tools of western oppression. But the second mighty force behind grade inflation is something conservatives normally praise: the marketplace.

American universities are big businesses which can charge students in excess of $20,000 a year for the privilege of attending them. Students naturally gravitate towards institutions that are going to give them a return on their investment-the sparkling academic resumé that opens the doors to Wall Street banks or prestigious law firms. Professors who resist the demand for grade-inflation may find themselves embarrassed by empty classrooms. Student course guides provide plenty of details about how generously teachers grade.

The third force is the lack of interest that high-flying academics show in the humdrum business of teaching. People who care a great deal about something are obsessed with making precise judgments of quality: listen to the average sports fan, for example. But the road to success in modern academia lies through research rather than teaching. All too many academics are content to hand out A-grades like confetti in return for favourable teaching ratings and more time to devote to research.

Fixing grade-inflation will not be easy in a system in which professors rightly value their autonomy. On the other hand, there are some signs of change. Graduate schools such as Harvard's Business School have manfully maintained their use of a rigorous grading curve. Some universities have experimented with putting two grades on report cards-the individual student's grade and the average grade for the class as a whole.

But perhaps the simplest argument for Mr Mansfield's cause is that anybody who has ever been well taught knows that he is right. People who work under demanding taskmasters usually learn to respect them. People who are coddled with unearned A-grades despise the system they are exploiting. Living on a diet of junk grades is like living on a diet of junk food. You swell up out of all decent proportions without ever getting any real nourishment. And you end up in later life regretting your disgusting habits.


A short biography of Harvey Mansfield is posted by Harvard's Department of Government. FM, the Harvard Crimson's humour magazine, catches Mr Mansfield "cooking the first full meal of his life".


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