- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

In thinking back on the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the big picture of defeat and disunion gives way to the smaller tableaux: Jane Fonda and the POWs; burning draft cards and burning bras; bad hair, bad drugs, and later, bad Oliver Stone movies. The fact that 91 percent of Harvard seniors graduated with honors last spring, of course, doesn't come to mind. But maybe it should.

According to a report sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, grade inflation may have begun during the Vietnam War. College faculty, it turns out, were reluctant to give poor grades to students who, if kicked out of school, would be drafted into military service. For instance, one professor cited in the report describes how he had felt guilty about being a draft-deferred graduate student, admitting, "When grading time came, and we knew that giving a C meant that our student (who deserved a D) would go into the jungle, we did one better and gave him a B." Such "courtesies" soon became the norm.

But there's more to the origin of grade inflation. As the baby boom matriculated, a whopping 300,000 new professors were hired in the 1960s, doubling the size of the professorate. These new profs, the report notes, were usually "young, anti-war individuals who identified with the values of the students." The new "student-centered" faculty collided with the old "institutionally centered" faculty, and we all know who won. To the "student-centered" victors went the spoils which included control of all the A's and honors of higher education. And, it turns out, being "student-centered" had its benefits. The research shows that as grades improved, so too did students' evaluations of their professors evaluations that play a significant role in a professor's career.

To all of this, the report's authors suggest something that could wilt the ivy off all those ivy-covered walls: "For evaluations to accomplish their intended purpose we must question a currently popular assumption in psychology and education that virtually all students can excel academically across the board and in life as well."

We must? If we question that assumption that people are separated by degrees of self-esteem, not talent or application then we must question other assumptions on which modern academia is based. Grade inflation, after all, is part and parcel of the philosophy that all hierarchies of excellence should be flattened. A grading system that doesn't measure a student's achievement (grade inflation) makes perfect sense in the context of a philosophy that does not recognize cultural achievement (political correctness). "A," "C," George Washington, Caesar Chavez they're all the same, right?

Wrong. As the report soundly recommends, academia must decide to distinguish between A and C again. If it does, maybe we'll even see academia start to distinguish between George Washington and Caesar Chavez. But that's a big "if."


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