Yesterday, we ran a story about a rather astonishing fact that the Harvard Crimson uncovered: The most common grade at Harvard is an A.
To a lot of readers, this high-grades bonanza is a symptom of today's "cult of self-esteem." Kids these days—especially high-achieving kids who end up at elite colleges—are so conditioned to expect praise that they fall apart when they face failure. Harvard perpetuates the cult by patting its students on the head rather than truly challenging them. "Everyone gets a trophy," Ryan Foster tweeted in response to the story. "Everyone is special!," wrote Caspar Melville.
Not everyone was so quick to criticize Harvard. According to Joyce Carol Oates, a prolific author and a creative writing professor at Princeton University, Ivy League students are special. She wrote a long stream of tweets defending Harvard's grading policy, beginning with this one:
The rest of Oates's argument, which she expressed in her next seven tweets, goes like this:
Not "grade inflation" to give excellent, hard-working students grades of A. Bell-curve used at large universities to winnow out students. Very competitive to get admitted to some universities, & then some advanced courses require applications. These students should be A's.
"Grade inflation" a code term like "affirmative action." The disgruntled wanting to think that others' academic success is not earned. At UC-Berkeley, teaching an advanced workshop that required applications, I was not surprised to have graded virtually all A's—A, A-. Come meet our students, & you will not be surprised—(or resentful)—that they receive high grades. Possibly, you will be impressed.
At large universities where thousands are admitted, bell-curve grading is used to "flunk out" many freshmen. Very different in Ivy League. Bell-curve grading, which assures a percent of low grades & failures, is a cruel academic necessity in some quarters. Encourages cheating.
There's a lot of wisdom in Oates's argument. There is no point in giving out bad grades for the sake of giving out bad grades; if most people in a given class are doing excellent work, they should be rewarded for it. And she's probably correct that a lot of the frustration aimed at Harvard's grading trends is motivated by resentment, not educational idealism.