So What If Everyone at Harvard Gets an A?

Princeton creative writing professor Joyce Carol Oates makes a misguided defense of Ivy League grade inflation.

Elise Amendola/AP Images

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.

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.

Midway through my time at Princeton, though, the school adopted new grading standards. Starting my junior fall, professors could give out only a limited number of A-range grades. The change prompted lots of anxiety and indignation from the student body—and now, nine years later, it may be rolled back. But for me, "grade deflation" was a much-needed kick in the pants. I started reading more carefully, taking more diligent notes, developing relationships with my professors and their teaching assistants. I ended up learning a lot more and enjoying my classes in a much deeper way. Yes, hard-working students should be rewarded with good grades. But a very good way to inspire students to work hard in the first place is to make good grades worth something.