Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Grades are like any currency

Before I get into this, I want to mention that the articles I link are long and numerous, so please don't feel pressured to read them. I only link them for posterity and sourcing reasons. I read this article in the NYT: "Nearly Everyone Gets A’s at Yale. Does That Cheapen the Grade?" This quote in particular caught my attention:

“Grades are like any currency,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who tracks grade inflation: They tend to increase over time.

Dr. Rojstaczer's website,, is pretty cool. We will analyze it further in a second. His quote here, however, reminded me of my conversation with Kenan Basha last month. He graduated from Michigan Business School in 2003. As a student, he claimed to have spent He said he spent all his time either studying in the Law Library, or at MSA events. Essentially no business undergrad could claim to do the same today, because our classes are simply not that hard. Mr. Basha also made no mention of the closed clubs that have consumed Ross' culture. Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, brings them up:
“Students feel the need to distinguish themselves outside the classroom because they are essentially indistinguishable inside the classroom,” she said, adding, “Extracurriculars, which should be stress relieving, become stress producing.” 
I think this is pretty insightful. Do grades define a person? At this point, it seems like they don't, whether they'd like to or not. But is that a good outcome for society? Should people have to work super hard for an A? I don't know. Here's my understanding of what happened between Mr. Basha undergrad and now:
  1. Classes were hard and stressful, and grades seemed to predict your career outcomes
  2. Students didn't like that, complained to faculty and admin, who are incentivized to ensure students have successful careers
  3. Faculty and admin made grading less harsh, leading to students not being differentiated
  4. Students designed competitive (sometimes application-based) club structures, to differentiate themselves to employers and graduate schools
  5. Clubs are now stressing students out, so students are complaining to faculty and staff
We're at 5 now. We're rapidly approaching 6? What is 6? I don't know. But it does not seem to me like the new system of clubs is any more meritocratic than the also flawed system of grades. 

Perhaps I may be overreaching here, but it seems like a similar phenomenon to "test optional." This Vox explainer discussing new test optional regimes confirmed my priors  a few paragraphs in, boom. High school grade inflation. 

When explaining why grade inflation keeps happening, Mr. Gradeinflation comes to the conclusion that "professors are grading easier year by year by a tiny amount." I guess my drive behind this is to understand what the societal implications are. Mr. GI's conclusion is at least moderately fair. I've seen what he describes, at least anecdotally. A recent discussion in MES said that they've made EECS 203 (Discrete Math) significantly easier compared to years ago. Ross rejiggers their courses very regularly to ensure students aren't stressed. The entire SI program grades on their "gamified" scale, where you earn points to hit certain letter grade thresholds.

But GI Guy attributes this to the consumerist ethos he believes that higher education has embodied. A college education is a product, and it is beholden to its customer — the student. Mr. GI seems to be banging a popular drum — that the liberal arts are dying, that people Don't Know What College Is Really About. The productization of a college education is a favorite gripe of a whole range of people, from those who love the liberal arts to those who think that student loan forgiveness is America's chief crisis.

But is commercialization of college really the problem? Is the death of the academy, with its rigorous intellectual training, the crisis? Is grade inflation the symptom? I looked into another oft bemoaned symptom, "The End of the English Major" (New Yorker). Ross Douthat, an NYT Opinion Columnist that I do not like, wrote this in response: "I’m What’s Wrong With the Humanities." Douthat's take is that in its own crusade for modern relevance, the study of English is dying. 
But that quest can end only in self-destruction when the thing to which you’re trying so desperately to bind yourself (the culture and spirit of the smartphone-era internet, especially) is actually devouring all the habits of mind that are required for your own discipline’s survival.
I am not so infallible to arguments that agree with my priors. I too, rain my own hate on digitization's stampede. Heller, a staff writer at a magazine, is conflicted as well. He has no reason to cheer on the death of his sport. His article cites several anecdotes, which are explosive despite their editorial effect. A Columbia professor who only reads one novel a month, down from five, because he reads "hundreds of websites." The aforementioned Amanda Claybaugh, saying her students could not distinguish between subject and the verb while reading "The Scarlet Letter." Another Harvard professor celebrating Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul as the future of the study of English. 

Heller directs his ire at the internet and at STEM. Digitization's has deleterious effects, but the answer is unlikely to force everyone to dissecting Dickens and Dante around a fire. I am biased — in the writing of this very post, I asked ChatGPT questions like "opposite of lament" and "is this sentence confusing." The fruits of modernity benefit me. Blogger, how I come to you right now, was not invented by an English major.

To me, the principal problem is neither grade inflation, competitive club culture, the death of the humanities, or the fast-paced electronic world. In the absence of a higher order, a structure imposed on us, we fall back onto our base desires. Money pushes people to major in things — tech, finance, consulting, even medicine. The desire of least resistance pays our brains to calculate what's the simplest way to get there. Business over economics, "information analysis" over statistics. 

There are even non-monetary factors at play. Power intrigues. Students who major in public policy or environmental science might want to "make an impact." But at what cost? Those preceding us who made impacts did so with millennial scopes. The chain of influence did not end one generation ago. Why limit our purview to a limited window of the "now?" Why treat University like a vocational program? Someone asked in the Muslim engineering group chat which classes are most useful for industry. If that is your goal in college, then so be it. But is preparing yourself with the engineering of today going to aid you in solving the problems of tomorrow? I do not think so. Maybe college should return as a glorious academy, ravenously debating the merits of this or that, drinking the sap of education from their esteemed elders. But why does it not go that way? 

The Marxist answer is capitalism. Capital plows the productization of education down our throats, market forces coerce us all into a zero-sum system. We take part in this system because we have no other choice. I rebut that by pointing out that I think these types actually enjoy their capitalist life. I won't go into depth here, but they have it pretty good. 

I don't know what the liberal answer is. Liberalism often fails to answer big questions, unfortunately. Moving on. 

My answer is that people don't know their purpose in doing things. People simply do them, because they see others doing them, or because they ingratiate the self. No one picks their major after carefully weighing society's needs. No one decides, after thoroughly contemplating the state of the world, that they should be graded on an easier scale. Doing things "just because" ultimately means "I'm doing things for me." Islam guides us away from this. Islam doesn't tell us to take the easy wiggle through. Islam tells us to excel, to be at the pinnacle of whatever we do. The intention behind that is the key. What distinguishes the Muslim? To some extent, their actions, but to the greatest extent, what is inside them. 

The call for the pursuit of excellence in academics, which I first make to myself, is mostly a call for a long term view and an understanding of your responsibility to excel for your faith and your society. Are classes too hard? Is the problem really that the grading is too harsh, or there another issue? Why have we, as a society, almost entirely deposited with the written form? Is it because modernity is better, or is it because of our human impulse for dopamine to flow? Why do we do things? Do we do them to be excellent? Or does self-benefiting mediocrity satisfice us? I think we should not settle for mediocrity. As Muslims, we should pursue excellence, in deen and dunya. That pursuit starts in the heart.