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Letter on "grade inflation"

I wrote the following letter to the Washington Post in response to an op-ed piece written by Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer ("Where All Grades Are Above Average," January 28, 2003). Please send any comments to

January 31, 2003

Letters to the Editor
The Washington Post
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Editor:

Stuart Rojstaczer ("Where All Grades Are Above Average," January 28, 2003) deserves credit for calling the public's attention to the rampant grade inflation that is plaguing American colleges and universities today. I too am deeply familiar with the ever-increasing pressure on professors to hand out high grades as though they were an "entitlement." I must take issue, however, with two of Professor Rojstaczer's assertions: first, that this trend is essentially unstoppable, and second, that it stems from "the marketplace mentality of higher education."

In fact, grade inflation is just one of many pathological symptoms of an educational establishment that is gradually abandoning its traditional standards of excellence in favor of egalitarian relativism. The accommodation of mediocrity was a conscious choice made by key university administrators seeking to mollify various protest movements in years past, and it remains a choice open to individual instructors today: either conform to peer pressure or rise above it. It is the same choice faced by millions of teenagers who are tempted by the drug subculture on a daily basis.

This analogy points to the need for courage in facing up to the taunts of those in the "in-crowd" who live their lives in conformity with passing fads. If Professor Rojstaczer fears that he will ultimately be regarded as a "failure" if he gives students the grades they really deserve, he needs to reconsider whether his self-esteem should depend on the judgments of those who pander to low achievers. He should also remember that academia is a unique realm in which ideas do transform reality, and that despondent attitudes -- such as he apparently holds -- tend to feed on themselves until there is no escape from the vicious cycle. The point is not that we should all adopt a facile "just say no!" slogan, but rather accept the unique occupational hazards associated with the educational profession. Being a good teacher means erring on the side of optimism and assuming responsibility for doing what must be done, however unlikely success may seem.

To understand why so many top-notch scholars fail to recognize the obvious moral dimension of the grade inflation problem, you must look at the lack of understanding, or outright disparagement, of market economics that is prevalent in "liberal" arts colleges and departments today. Contrary to what Professor Rojstaczer writes, the driving force behind grade inflation is not "marketplace mentality" but rather the cynical, shallow obsession with quantitative measures of status that prevails throughout American society today. One manifestation of this is the annual rankings on colleges and universities published by U.S. News and World Report. Another is the "Standards of Excellence" exams that succeed only in forcing students to memorize boatloads of facts by rote, without instilling in them much if any of the deeper meaning of those facts. Like the latest diet fad, the main effect of these artificial ranking systems is to raise anxiety levels, sometimes to the point of neurosis. The trend toward quantifying everything and the corresponding rise of "aliteracy" and decline of humanities and ethics are emblematic of the slow strangulation of liberal education in this country, which is part and parcel of the disintegration of civic responsibility and erosion of freedom. Professor Rojstaczer does seem to recognize that peril.

How is the contemporary obsession with "bottom-line results" different from "marketplace mentality"? It's the same as the difference between a cynic (who "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing") and an ethical pragmatist, who strives for a balance between ends and means. Contrary to what disillusioned former utopians believe, free markets do not "force" people to become materialistic hyperconsumers, they rather broaden the range of choices, thereby conferring individuals with greater moral responsibility for their actions. The only circumstances under which markets could be said to undermine quality are when public policy creates systematic distortions in them. That is precisely what is happening in medical care and education today. Unlike shopping around for everyday consumer goods, where you can expect a prompt refund if you're dissatisfied, when it comes to the life-and-death stakes in many professions, the risks of tolerating lousy quality are intolerably high. That is why guilds and professional associations arose, creating an artificial scarcity of service as a necessary means to prevent "quackery." What determines the quantity and quality of any particular professional service at a given time is not supply and demand, but rather the consensus view held by that profession's elite. That is why professional fields can never operate according to pure market principles (or else they would cease to be professional), and that is also why they are to a large degree unaccountable to society at large.

In any democracy, there is a built-in policy bias in favor of compensating disadvantaged people for the lack of access to quality medical care and education. Nothing at all wrong with that. The problem is that when public subsidies to education (such as scholarships, loan guarantees, and bond issues) continually rise, a sense of entitlement is created that shields academic administrators from the consequences of the contrived scarcity of quality teaching. As one example of the pathologies that result, if a given professor has a high enough academic reputation, students will tolerate being squeezed into classes where enrollment soars into the hundreds. As long as this sort of subsidized "mob mentality" continues, the incentives on professors to "defect" (in game theory terms) from professional standards and curry student favor will escalate without limit. That is why it seems "almost impossible for a professor to grade honestly" these days.

Professor Rojstaczer rationalizes caving into the pressures of mediocrity by writing, "Outstanding students don't need a teacher who carries a big stick. They need educators who are partners and facilitators in learning." Is he not aware of the crushing disappointment that high-caliber students feel when the least-motivated students are permitted to drag down the entire classroom? Every professor must figure out his own individual approach to the perennial problem of how to reach out to students of widely varying abilities, but this much is certain: no amount of personalized attention can substitute for the meaningful positive grade incentives on which the best students thrive. In my own experience, the deep satisfaction that has come from one superior student expressing gratitude for the intellectual challenge I provided far outweighs the grief I get from three or four low-achieving whiners. The worst thing any teacher can ever do is snuff out the curiosity and ambition of a promising scholar: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

In sum, unless Professor Rojstaczer means to be issuing a public wake up call wrapped in sophisticated irony, his apparent excuses for tolerating mediocrity do a grave disservice to higher education. There is a virtual holocaust in the American educational system today, and all it takes is for cozy tenured professors to turn a blind eye while the brightest minds among the youth of today are systematically fed into the "ovens." If those who are privileged to occupy leadership positions in higher education are not up to the task of serious reform, then for the foreseeable future our society will indeed be quite "woebegone." Some day, however, those of us who are earnest about inspiring students to share our passion for learning will begin to outnumber the weak-spirited "defectors" who acquiesce in the slouch toward Gomorrah.



Andrew G. Clem
Ph.D., University of Virginia, 2002
1500 N. Coalter St. Apt. D2
Staunton, VA 24401