Saturday, December 07, 2013

A for Admission

It should come as no surprise that I am a terrible liar, and although I promised to give the Crimson a rest, I couldn't help following the grade inflation story whither it went, which happened to be to Conor Friedersdorf, who can always be relied on to strain with the greatest earnestness and doe-eyed good intention towards the wrong view of everything. So with grade inflation. But that's useful in this case, because it saves me the embarrassment of railing against the Crimson's insipid editorial on this topic or its frothing website commenters, who say pretty much the same thing in defense of grade inflation, but without Conor's relative sense of proportion. Thus sayeth Conor:
Ivy League educational institutions attract a disproportionate share of grade-obsessed overachievers. These young people are extremely driven, aren't in need of external motivators to learn, but often react to the grading system by gaming it: that is to say, they engage in cut-throat competition with classmates rather than helping one another learn; they manipulate teachers; and they choose earning a higher grade rather than learning more when there is a tension between the two...
The question is whether "the system" of traditional collegiate grading has enough value left to make it worth conserving. At highly selective institutions filled with people who've all already demonstrated that they're perfectly capable of earning As in difficult academic classes, a strong case can be made that grades no longer have much value. Jacobs doesn't necessarily disagree. "To be sure, in one sense the system deserves to be gamed—it’s fundamentally broken—and what Davidson is doing is only slightly more extreme than what most professors, enablers of grade inflation, do every day," he wrote. "But the system needs to be faced and critiqued more straightforwardly, more honestly."
This is a very flattering view of The Ivy League Student in a state of academic nature, but it is precisely wrong. Grading is not the enemy of learning. "These young people" are indeed very driven, but they are not uniformly driven to learn, except perhaps in the broadest Platonic sense that everyone prefers the truth to falsehood. This, however, does not mean that they aren't "in need of external motivators" to learn those things which universities are organized to teach. If that were true, there would be no need of required courses, because all students would take the full range of the curriculum of their own accord. There would additionally be no need of papers and exams, because students would do the requisite reading and thinking of their own accord. Finally, there would be no need of courses themselves, because these students would pursue their drives to learn independently. So, in sum, there would be no need of universities for the sorts of students that attend the best ones.

And that's also true in the same airy sense that the view that learning is self-motivated is true. Strictly speaking, you don't need a university to learn astronomy or metaphysics - Galileo didn't have one! Plato didn't either! - but that's completely beside the point. In the Edenic state of academic nature that Conor envisions, there need be no coercion or competition because all students are already perfectly virtuous, and coercion and competition only sully their pure natures. But with very few exceptions, learning doesn't work that way, even for smart people. In our fallen state, grades go hand-in-hand with all the other forms of institutional coercion like required courses and course requirements to externally motivate students to learn the things that they need to know, but don't know that they need to know because they haven't learned them yet. I have a decent amount of internal motivation to learn things, as well as decent aptitude for it, but there is no way I would ever have opted to learn calculus in college had that not been required. I like learning political theory even more than learning things in general, but it would never have occurred to me to even try it unless it was assigned in (required) courses. And I like learning things I'm good at, but it would've been hard to discern what I'm good at, or even whether I was actually learning anything and not simply experiencing a series of interesting delusions, had there not been any evaluation of my work in those courses. The mere fact that I was a decent high school student with decent test scores that qualified me for admission to a (at the time not very) selective university was no guarantee that I would learn anything at that university. All it meant was that I probably had the capacity to do so, if sufficiently provoked. And grades and requirements were essential provocations to the activation of otherwise passive capacities.

That a competitive or hierarchical system of evaluation encourages students to try to game that system is not much of an argument against it. All rules will occasion efforts to evade those rules, but that hardly militates against the validity of rules. Conor's insistence that students "choose earning a higher grade rather than learning more when there is a tension between the two" sounds downright tragic, but when do tensions really arise between learning and getting a higher grade? Generally, the more you learn, the higher your grade will be. Perhaps some students write marginally worse papers under the pressure of deadlines than if they'd had more time, but as all grad students know, endless time usually just means that no paper gets written at all. Pressure helps. It helps not just because the "real world" is full of tyrants putting pressure on you at work and at home and so on, so you ought to be prepared for that in advance. That's true, but pressure is not the result of purely artificial circumstances like deadlines and other people's whiny demands, but of the fact that life runs on a deadline and you have to get things done before time's up, which means before they're perfect and flawless. So you will turn in papers whose ideas are not fully formed and take exams for which you weren't able to learn every formula, but you'll have formed more ideas and learned more formulas than if you never had to produce a paper or take an exam at all.

Declaring that "the system is broken" because grading is not perfectly standardized is melodramatic alarmism. A course grade is not a verdict on a student's character or even his intelligence. It may be correlated with these things to the extent that the intelligent have an easier time learning than the dull, and the diligent and conscientious do more and better work than the lazy and unfocused, but a grade is a statement about neither of these things. It is a judgment of the quality of the work a student submits in a particular course. And it's not arbitrary. Different professors may distribute credit in slightly different ways such that the difference between any particular A and A-, or B+ and A-, etc. is somewhat subjective. But the differences among A, B, and C papers are usually so obvious that I suspect even the students in the course, if given their own papers to mark, would arrive at the same general results. And that's been the case so far in every class I've graded for, despite the claim that all Harvard students are so off-the-charts brilliant that no appreciable differences could possibly be discerned among them.

The Crimson editorial board's response to Harvard's announcement that the majority of grades across all disciplines are A's was to sniff that this is because they, the current crop of Harvard students, are just so much smarter than Harvard students ever were in the past that all their work must be deserving of an A compared to the work of students past. I'm willing to grant that, in the narrow sense that elite universities now put more emphasis on academic merit in admissions than they did before standardized testing was used, current Harvard students are indeed more academically talented on average than Harvard students in 1910. Great. However, it in no way follows that, because you've "demonstrated that you're perfectly capable of earning A's" by being admitted to a selective college, you actually earned an A in anything at that college, unless Getting Admitted is a course of which I have not heard. And if that's the case, would the professor please call me, because with such a light grading load, it sounds like an ideal class to TA? (Incidentally, this reasoning is not even true: I was capable of earning A's in some college courses, but by no means in all of them. I suspect most people are like that.)

But after all that, Conor has apparently not even convinced himself that all Harvard students are identically brilliant and deserving of A's, because his proposed short-term response to grade inflation is:
In some bygone piece I can't locate, written by a college professor whose name I can't remember, this solution was proposed: two separate grades, one sent to the registrar, using the inflated grade currency, and the other given to the student in private, as their "real" grade, for purposes of actual assessment and personal fulfillment.
Yes, hmmm, I wonder where he came across this solution... In any case, the proposition that there is a "real" grade behind the inflated grade gives away the game - student work even at the best universities does vary in quality, and those variations can be reliably distinguished, evaluated, and ranked. Then they must be immediately buried. The roughly equal intellectual capacity of students does not issue in equal learning or equal demonstration of that learning. The end.

In another Atlantic piece on the same topic, Eleanor Barkhorn makes another important point in defense of uninflated grading:
But she makes one assumption about Ivy League students that is misguided in my experience: She describes them as "excellent, hard-working students." I went to Princeton. (I even took one of Oates's terrific writing seminars.) And while I did find most of my classmates to be "excellent"—that is: smart, compassionate, well-read, curious—a lot of us weren't especially hard-working. A lot of us had pushed ourselves hard in high school to get in to a great school and saw our time at Princeton as a reward, not an opportunity to push ourselves again, even harder. The university's relatively lax grading policies only encouraged that mentality.
A meritocracy can only be justified if those selected for its highest honors are forced to work harder than everyone else, to "push themselves" to continually demonstrate that they deserve those honors. A meritocracy is after all rule by those most deserving of rule. And who deserves to rule but those who are best at ruling? How can we know if you are best are ruling? By seeing you in action. Intelligence as a passive capacity for quick learning is not a qualification for ruling; it's a qualification for arrogance. Selective universities should be difficult, more so in proportion to the intelligence of their students, precisely because the smartest students have the greatest capacity to learn and so need to learn more to reach capacity. Do you know how much it's necessary to learn if you want to understand the world? More than what any single student learns in college - even the most diligent student at the best college. But understanding the world is the actual standard for education, not winning whatever piddling and ephemeral inter-institutional competition for marks that Conor bewails. And this standard is what justifies both the higher demands on smarter students and the continued use of evaluative measures like grades. Students are not going to aim for this standard on their own, because intelligence is not the same thing as motivation and diligence. We can demand this from them because we reward them in proportion for their progress in learning, which requires them to demonstrate it. Without the demands of rigor and output, there would be no justification for schooling at all, and no justification for the existence of the same selective universities which are being called on to stop demanding rigor and output. And if this is all too stress-inducing a prospect, then perhaps what we need is not a new grading system, but a new political regime.


Jeff said...

This statement by Friedersdorf struck me as strange:

"At highly selective institutions filled with people who've all already demonstrated that they're perfectly capable of earning As in difficult academic classes, a strong case can be made that grades no longer have much value."

Not only does he not make that "strong case," he also doesn't consider a notion that's obvious to me: then Harvard should be harder.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yeah, there is a general evasion of this question from the pro-inflaters. Is the reason that grade inflation is justified that Harvard and its ilk are on a level with Northeastern Illinois University, so that it reasonably follows that ALL the students at Harvard would receive A's at NEIU and therefore deserve them at Harvard? Or is it that Harvard is already more difficult, so that a normal distribution of grades (from A to C at least) might again apply? These propositions are mutually exclusive, but Harvard students seem to hope they might both be true simultaneously - that their Harvard A's are worth more than NEIU's AND they ALL deserve them.

Alpheus said...

These propositions are mutually exclusive, but Harvard students seem to hope they might both be true simultaneously - that their Harvard A's are worth more than NEIU's AND they ALL deserve them.

Isn't this the mindset of elites throughout history? We are clearly better than those below us, but among ourselves we are all peers, homoioi, aristocrats, optimi!

Maybe we should call Ivy Leaguers the A-ristocracy. (That's a hyphen, BTW. Not a minus, heaven forbid.)

Withywindle said...

Does Friedersdorf really not know the real/shadow grade was proposed by Harvey Mansfield? I'm not up on whether this is a knowing pretense of ignorance, or just ignorance.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alpheus: Yes, perhaps it's the default mindset of all elites, but, absent a demand that they pay for their status by fighting in wars, we must find some substitute sacrifice for our class of Platonic guardians. Meritocracy proposes that they suffer unabating status anxiety from the necessity of constantly having to demonstrate their worth and desert. There's only an A-ristocracy if the majority of your regime is on the B and C Teams.

Withywindle: I think it's probably genuine ignorance, or forgetfulness, but it's ironic in this case given what started this most recent installment of the grade inflation debate.