Hypocrisy in college grading yields a flood of mediocrity

The Argument

In the name of self-esteem and placid students, major institutions are failing to teach


August 18, 2002|By Judith Schlesinger | By Judith Schlesinger,Special to the Sun

Everyone knows that American education is in deep trouble; the question is whether there's any hope. As a psychology professor for the past 17 years at a well-known New York-area university, I've had a front seat for the slide in student skills and motivation and -- worst of all -- curiosity. For too many, grades are more important than learning; even in my high school days, an "A" was often more cherished than the knowledge it signified.

The difference today is that grades don't need to be earned, and can be raised by blackmail. Last fall, two of my students didn't like theirs, and leaned on the administration to improve them. I objected to my department chair, documenting their poor performance throughout the semester, but he chose to solve the problem by forging my signature on the grade-change forms. I discovered this several weeks later, when, hearing nothing further from him, I called the registrar on a hunch. The C- student now had a B+ -- and a lesson he will carry forever.

I was deeply shocked. Worse yet, I found that most of my colleagues around the country were not. They were sympathetic, sure, and surprised that an administrator would take such a stupid risk, but there was little outrage. Apparently, negotiating academic standards has become common practice. Besides, when tenure and advancement are so dependent on student ratings, it's safer to raise grades and dilute assignments than to fight the rising sludge of mediocrity.

Although none of their bosses had resorted to crime to placate a student, the professors all bemoaned their job shift from cultivating learners to pleasing consumers. Colleges keep cranking out mission statements that extol "excellence," but in practice too often it takes a back seat to retention.

This hypocrisy is abundantly clear in the trenches, but in the ivory tower they're still singing the old songs about higher education. Leland Miles, former president of two universities, is wistfully idealistic in Provoking Thought: What Colleges Should Do for Students (Phoenix Publishing, 170 pages, $30). Aside from "an open mind, a balanced view, and a sense of wonder," college should give its graduates compassion, insight, moral judgment and global perspective, introduce other indices of success besides money, and offer courses in friendship and marriage.

Miles is a free-range thinker -- someone I'd love to have dinner with -- but admits his ideas would require "a radical restructuring of the curriculum," an unlikely prospect since getting faculty to accept change "is like lifting an elephant."

Another solution is to focus more intensively on the Great Books. In Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education (Yale University Press, 271 pages, $26.95), Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus at Dartmouth, claims that this is the remedy for the "loss of point and loss of seriousness" in college today, offering his dichotomy between "Athens" (the mode of logic) and "Jerusalem" (spirituality) for analyzing classic works from Dostoevski to the Bible. The book is brilliant, but unlikely to help the student who can ask, as one of mine did, "Professor, are you going to say anything important tonight?"

Both proposals overlook two dismaying realities: a generation of students taught to believe that self-esteem is more important than real achievement, and administrators whose eyes are glued to the bottom line.

Miles and Hart are busy decorating a crumbling cake. So is Rachael Kessler, who targets younger students in The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 181 pages, $23.95).

Kessler provides instruction in "welcom[ing] soul into the classroom," including "sharing circles" during which teachers can deal with kids who have mood swings or feel lonely. Students' ability to read, write and think is secondary to their feeling good about themselves, which is precisely the philosophy that got us into this pickle in the first place.

In fact, Miles blames the lack of failure experience for the decline in curiosity, which he defines as "the willingness to learn despite the risk of embarrassment."

In the feel-good model that has dominated American education for the past 30 years, all efforts were equally worthy, and grading was either meaningless or eliminated altogether. This stunted students' ability to differentiate quality from sham, making them more vulnerable to every shiny come-on the world can throw at them.

And learners protected from honest judgment never learn to, as Miles says, "recognize, accept, understand and learn from mistakes," critical abilities in our fast-changing world."

With so little experience at surviving failure, they come to dread it.

Afraid to stretch and dare, many become passive and bored, doing just enough to get by and wheedling through when they haven't.

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