Why do so many writers about higher education generalize about the whole sector from the experience of a handful of campuses?
Once again the mainstream press emits an article which confuses academia’s 1% with the 99%. This time the putative topic is grade inflation. Quick summary: Mark Oppenheimer thinks grade inflation reveals that grades are lame, and we should move to more qualitative evaluations. Which is a) a decent idea, and b) not a new one.
But watch how Oppenheimer creates his evidence base. Like William Deresiewicz or Julie Lythcott-Haims, for example, it’s mostly about the Ivies, starting with the column’s first few words:
The first grade I got as a clueless, sweater-vest-wearing Yale freshman in 1992 was a C-plus…
According to a 2012 study, the average college GPA, which in the 1930s was a C-plus, had risen to a B at public universities and a B-plus at private schools. At Duke, Pomona and Harvard, D’s and F’s combine for just 2 percent of all grades. A Yale report found that 62 percent of all Yale grades are A or A-minus. According to a 2013 article in the Harvard Crimson, the median grade at Harvard was an A-minus , while the most common grade was an A.
From the first sentence on, the article is largely about the elite, far out of proportion to their actual representation in American post-secondary education. That brief mention of “public universities and… private schools”, a little gesture towards the 99% (sort of), disappears in the article’s next sentence: “The result is widespread panic about grade inflation at elite schools.”
To be charitable, let’s assume “widespread” refers only to the people directly connected with those “elite” campuses, rather than the nation as a whole. Because watch the very next sentence:
(The phenomenon is not as prevalent at community colleges and less-selective universities.)
Note the parentheses. It’s almost as if the majority of American higher education is either easily dismissed, or is simply too embarrassing to include in the real discussion. Because that’s where the author heads next:
Yet whenever elite schools have tried to fight grade inflation, it’s been a mess. Princeton instituted strict caps… At Wellesley, grade-inflated humanities departments mandated … Yale and Harvard, while making noises about grade inflation, have never instituted tough rules to stem it.
It’s time to give up the fight against grade inflation. I have taught at Stanford, Wellesley, New York University, Boston College and Yale, and I used to be a grade-inflation warrior.
From here on out the article proceeds as if that handful of schools represents all of American higher education, having safely removed from consideration the rest of academia, where things aren’t so elite, and where reality might be different.
Watch how Oppenheimer goes on to generalize:
It’s easy to see why schools want to fight grade inflation. Grades should motivate certain students… But it’s not clear that grades work well as motivators…. Overall, graded students are less interested in the topic at hand…
Even where grades can be useful, as in describing what material a student has mastered, they are remarkably crude instruments. Yes, the student…
Meanwhile, I’ve taught humanities subjects for 15 years…
We need to move to a post-grading world.
Now it’s all “students”, “schools”, “grades” in a general, almost abstract way. The 1% stand in for the 99%. Having gapped out community colleges and less selective public institutions, those parentheses have done their job.
Onward the article goes, citing “four top schools”, Stanford, and “rarified, expensive places”.
But now, towards the end of the piece, it’s as if reality has suddenly returned, or at least a sense of gesturing towards the academic 99%.
There are a few other problems with the piece. To begin with, note how it commits that classic humanist error of collapsing the entire curriculum into the humanities, or just dismissing the former to privilege the latter:
By the early ’90s, so long as one had the good sense to major in the humanities — all bets were off in the STEM fields — it was nearly impossible to get a final grade below a B-minus at an elite college.
“all bests were off” could have been “things were different in the sciences,” or a more detailed explanation of life on the other side of C.P. Snow’s barrier wall. But instead the author can just hand wave away that huge chunk of academia.
I also enjoyed the stark utopianism of this passage towards the end, where the author makes a single nod in the direction of economics: “A change in grading would be even harder. It would mean hiring more teachers and paying them better (which schools should do anyway).” Well, I did say “economics,” but not “reality.” Erm, tell us how would we pay for that, please? And I do mean “us”, beyond the – what did you call them – “rarified, expensive places”.
My main point, though, is to draw attention to this bad form of writing about American higher education. I’ve blogged about it previously. As inequality among Americans increases, and gaps between campuses widen, it’s increasingly important to bear that reality in mind, not disappear it in parentheses.