2003, October: Grades

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living. Job 28:12-13

I rise to speak not of good and evil, but of good and bad. Of good students and bad students, or rather, of what counts as good and bad in official Harvard records. Your grades, students, and the grades we professors give you.

Those who have been at Harvard for a while will recall that this was the burning issue here two years ago. It was a “scandal” that half our grades are A or A minus. Many speeches, many newspaper articles, many, many hours of faculty time, and many reams of data and reports were devoted to searching our souls on what one of our colleagues described as this “evil.”

Why? Because, we were told, if the grade scale is compressed or inflated, we are providing misleading information to the external audiences that read our transcripts. In this view we owe it to employers and graduate schools to provide an objective assessment of the students we send them -- to tell them who is better than whom.
Now it turns out that in spite of the many explanations offered for the recent increase in grades – admission of Black students, the Vietnam War, and student evaluations of professors, among others – the recent increase in grades simply follows a pattern that has existed since grades were invented. Letter grades started here in 1886, and it took less than a decade for some members of the faculty to complain that grades weren’t worth what they used to be. In the words of the 1894 “Committee on raising the Standard,” just eight years after the grading system had been put in place, “in present practice Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily, -- Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.” Panic about grade inflation comes in cycles – Lowell took it on with a vengeance in 1910, writing a personal letter to every Harvard professor – and then fades without much happening, just as happened once again last year after very limited reforms.

I started to wonder about the idea that grades have an external audience that we are somehow misleading. This concern implies an industrial view of higher education: universities produce college graduates the way automobile companies produce cars, and just as General Motors owes it to us not to put a Cadillac nameplate on a Chevrolet, so Harvard has an obligation not to give As to below-average students. That got me thinking about other areas of society in which institutions grade products for the benefit of consumers.

So I went into the Stop and Shop and tried to find me some Grade B milk. There was Hoods and Garelick Farms, big bottles and small bottles, cardboard and plastic, organic and not organic, zero percent, one percent, two percent, and whole fat, chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and double chocolate. But only Grade A. I checked the eggs, same thing. Cage free, brown, white, in six packs and twelves and eighteens, medium, large, extra large, and jumbo, four different brand names, but all Grade A. Butter was slightly different: there all I could find was Grade AA, in great variety.

How did that happen, and why do people put up with it? After all, the grading system was invented by the US Department of Agriculture to ensure that the consumers of our farm products would know what they were buying. How is it that the ultimate grade compression has occurred in agricultural products, and there is no information at all left in that grading system?

At one point it was actually possible to buy Grade B milk in markets. The grade refers to standards of sanitation, and is quite objective. Prior to World War I less than half of the milk was Grade A. What happened was that by their buying habits consumers forced the dairies to produce mostly Grade A milk. Though it would be possible to refine the grading system so we would know the rank ordering of Grade A milks by exact bacteria count, there is no sense from consumers today that Grade A needs to be subdivided. Knowing that milk is Grade A is enough, and people just choose among milks on different criteria.

Is there a moral here for the university? While our critics love to ridicule Harvard grades, there is no sense at all that the consumers of our products are unhappy with what we produce. We certify a minimum standard with our diplomas, and our consumers choose among our graduates on criteria other than grades, not because they can’t use our grades to discriminate, but because they recognize that for most purposes, course grades at Harvard are not the most important thing differentiating one student from another. Things that Harvard used to talk about – courage, ambition, mental toughness, integrity, imagination, compassion, capacity to rebound from reversals, a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it – these are the things that matter in real life. Not insignificant variations in grade point average.

So if I were selecting among graduates for any purpose except, perhaps, the creation of future college professors, I would do as I do when buying another agricultural product. You can still buy Grade B maple syrup, though it is hard to find. It often has much more flavor, more richness than Grade A. Buy the Grade A stuff if you want pure sweetness or if you want to impress your relatives visiting from California, but if it’s character that is important to you, well, forget about grades.