Sunday, May 04, 2003

Rewarding mediocrity 

There was this conversation about the Frederick Lang case at Critical Mass, and someone posted a reply (go to the first link and look for the comment by an Eric Jablow) about grade inflation -- wherein a group of math professors decided 140 out of 420 was a passing grade so as not to fail too many -- that was discussed on Photon Courier.
Of course, we all know what the point really is. The point is for students to obtain a piece of paper--a diploma--which is viewed as a passport to economic success. Increasingly, the perceived value of this diploma is decoupled from any knowledge or accomplishment that it actually represents. It is valued for the circular reason that--it is valued.

This situation is reminiscent of other pieces of paper--stock certificates in certain companies. At the height of the boom, people were acquiring these certificates without much consideration of the current or potential business results of the companies they represented. ("I don't know what it does," said one investor of a stock, "but I know it's moving.") The hope was simply that a popular stock would become more popular and hence increase in price--that is, these certificates were valued because they were valued.

A bubble is not infinitely sustainable. In the market, stocks will eventually collapse if there are no earnings to support their price levels. And, in academia, degrees will not be valued indefinitely unless they represent genuine knowledge and accomplishment. The collapse may not be as immediately dramatic as a market collapse--but it seems inevitable that it will eventually happen.

I learned from a former chairman in my department a way to deflect this. A semester ago I had a principles class that hadn't performed as well as I'd've liked. At the end of the term, I posted grades for all work except the final at the beginning of class. Any questions, I asked? "How come you've given only one 'A'?" one student answered. Remembering the lesson I was taught, I replied, "I don't give grades. You take them."

I then handed out course evaluations.

Nobody remembered what I told them on the first day: If you reward mediocrity, mediocrity is all you'll get.