"Grade inflation" is a fashionable topic of academic conversation these days. The term means different things to different people. To some professors it symbolizes a general tendency toward permissiveness and lax standards throughout the university. Others use the phrase to attack ungraded courses and the pass-fail system. But most teachers agitated over "grade inflation" are troubled that too many undergraduate students are receiving high grades in their courses. If good grades are easy to achieve, they feel, students will work little and learn less. As a result, the value of an undergraduate degree, even from an institution like Harvard, will be eroded.
This concern, voiced in faculty meetings throughout the Ivy League, rests upon scanty factual foundations. It is true that a larger proportion of undergraduates make "A's" and "B's" today than a generation ago, and a significantly higher number graduate with honors. But nobody has produced convincing evidence that undergraduates in 1976 study less, or know less, than did their predecessors in, say, 1956. If grades are on the whole higher today, it would seem reasonable to attribute the improvement to the better quality of the undergraduates or, less probably, to more effective teaching on the part of their professors. Instead, the professoriat is in the peculiar position of lamenting the fact that so many of our students are doing so well.
A good deal of the concern about "grade inflation" derives from simple ignorance of statistics. All college teachers have had to learn about the bell-shaped curve, that symmetrical pattern formed by the grades of a large, representative population, and in the minds of many that frequency distribution, intended to be descriptive, has become normative. Whether a teacher uses a precise formula or a rough estimate, he tends to think that the largest number of grades in his course ought to cluster around an average (a "C"), with roughly equal numbers of grades above and below that average. But these days he discovers that the average in his courses is a "B,' or a "B-plus" and that grades like "D" and "F" have largely disappeared. Guiltily he feels that he has failed to give sufficiently difficult examinations or to mark them with adequate rigor. He fails to understand that the bell-shaped curve fits only a representative population and that, by definition, the undergraduates at our better colleges and universities are not representative. Indeed, we have admissions offices to make sure that our students are a carefully selected elite. Rarely does an Ivy League college admit a freshman with SAT scores lower than 600. In a recent freshman class at Harvard, 77% came from the top tenth of their high school graduating class and an additional 11% came from the second tenth. It is, of course, statistically absurd to think that these students will make grades that fall into a "normal" distribution. Grading "on the curve" may have made sense at Harvard in the 1920's, when practically anybody with the right parents and enough money was admitted; it makes no sense at all at Harvard in the 1970's.
Insularity contributes to the special concern that some Harvard professors exhibit about "grade inflation." A large number of our faculty attended Harvard and have never taught elsewhere. To these a Harvard education is something unique. A Harvard degree ought to imply special qualities of excellence and achievement. Harvard, they feel, has a special obligation--indeed, a mission--to uphold standards. Doubtless it is good for morale that so many Harvard professors share this notion of Cantabridgian superiority, but the delusion can be harmful if it leads them to impose gargantuan assign ments upon our students. Fortunately Harvard professors who have taught elsewhere can remind their parochial colleagues that Harvard undergraduates are practically in-distinguishable, in ability and in accomplishments, from those at a dozen other institutions and that a Harvard degree is simply one of many reputable undergraduate degrees that students can receive in this country.
A more troubling cause for the present concern over "grade inflation" lies in the psychological insecurity of many professors. A surprising number of teachers, at Harvard and elsewhere, feel obscurely threatened by students. It is bad enough that undergraduates are healthier, more active, and better-looking than a middle-aged professoriat. But our uneasiness grows when we discover that, by and large, our students are more intelligent than we are. To be sure, they do not yet know as much as we do--but they show a dangerous facility for mastering disciplines and tools that required from most of us long, painful struggle. Most alarming of all, these undergraduates actually seem to be enjoying their education. Surely, we aging professors think, life has been made too easy for them; surely we must raise standards higher and yet higher so that their education like our own, can be a time of suffering and punishment. It is not surprising that the most vocal critics of "grade inflation" are professors who actively dislike students.
All this talk about "grade inflation," then, tells more about professors than it does about students, for it exposes our ignorance, our insularity, and our insecurity. It would be most unfortunate, therefore, if the faculty's current concern about grades and standards should cause any of our excellent undergraduates to underestimate their accomplishments or to undervalue the degrees they are honestly earning. It would be even worse if our students, like too many of our professors, came to think of college education as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Before becoming Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of American Civilization at Harvard, Donald was a full professor at Columbia University, Princeton University. Oxford University, and Johns Hopkins University.