The Magazine

A Gentleman’s A+

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Last week, a headline in the Harvard Crimson confirmed that Harvard is continuing its depressing slide from an elite educational institution to a really expensive way to boost the self-esteem of America’s overachieving youth: “Substantiating Fears of Grade Inflation, Dean Says Median Grade at Harvard College Is A-, Most Common Grade Is A.” The plain facts here are bad enough, but should you want further confirmation that today’s Harvard students aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are, The Scrapbook would refer you to the embarrassing editorial the student newspaper ran the same day dismissing the relevance of its own report:

That shouldn’t come as a complete surprise—admission to Harvard has become increasingly selective with each incoming class hailed as extraordinarily gifted. A commensurate gain in academic achievement should be more an expectation than a surprise. High grades could be an indicator of the rising quality of undergraduate work in the last few decades, due in part to the rising quality of the undergraduates themselves and a greater access to the tools and resources of academic work as a result of technological advances, rather than unwarranted grade inflation.

The editors of the Crimson should know this is a ridiculous argument, especially considering this is the same paper that produced a video montage last month of Harvard students who were unable to name the capital of Canada. The video quickly went viral. One of the stumped students actually responded to the question by saying, “Hashtag: embarrassing.” Contra the Crimson, we’re going to go out on a limb and say that students benefiting from technological advances such as Twitter aren’t automatically smarter than their predecessors.

The editorial is a little more honest, if lacking in shame, when it does in fact argue that grade inflation is necessary for self-esteem. “The post-recession mindset of students is already the source of much anxiety and to add the uneasiness of deflated grades would be unwise,” the editors argue. The use of the word “unwise” here is more than a bit revealing. 

The other problem with this argument is that grade inflation at Harvard is a long-term trend. Your humble Scrapbook reported on this in 2001, when Harvey Mansfield, distinguished professor of government at Harvard and esteemed contributor to this magazine, said he was “tired of punishing my students” and would henceforth give them two sets of grades each semester. The grade they earned and a suspiciously buoyant mark that would appear on their transcripts so as to placate the school’s cowardly administration. At the time Mansfield justified his new grading system by citing figures from the registrar’s office suggesting more than half of all grades at the university were A’s or A-minuses. In other words, grade inflation at Harvard has only worsened since he raised this issue a dozen years ago. 

Nor should it be surprising to learn that the only reason the issue is being raised again is that Mansfield asked the dean of undergraduate education about it at a monthly faculty meeting. According to Mansfield, the question and subsequent revelation produced an “embarrassed silence in the whole room. .  .  . The present grading practice is indefensible.” 

But when it comes to defending the indefensible, Harvard’s administrators and budding editorialists are giving it the old college try. Back in 2001, Mansfield was practically accused of racism for pointing out that grade inflation was a problem. The latest Crimson editorial appears to make a subtle dig at Mansfield (Harvard class of 1953). “Comparing modern grades to the C average during the Eisenhower administration disregard[s] significant differences in the College,” the editors of the Crimson protest. The current crop of students may believe that they are the academic apex of the storied university, but questioning a basic and undeniable observation of someone as experienced as Mansfield—how to put this?—would be unwise.

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