There’s a famous passage in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which a planet-sized computer, tasked with finding “the meaning of life” finally reports its results after hundreds of years of analysis. The answer, it says, is 42. That’s my feeling about grades, they provide an absurdly simple answer to very complicated questions. You feel like something happened, but in fact nothing happened. Still, as this story about grade inflation at Princeton shows (“Type-A-Plus Students Chafe at Grade Deflation“), just because something is totally absurd, doesn’t mean it can’t have efficacy in the world.
I’m never sure what grade inflation really means, in the end, but at Princeton they have apparently brought it under control, reducing the total number of A students from 50% to 40%. The problem, apparently, is that no other schools have followed suit. This means, as a student reports, the possible “nightmare scenario, if you will, is that you apply with a 3.5 from Princeton and someone just as smart as you applies with a 3.8 from Yale.” I suppose it’s true that in a highly competitive environment that .3 would make a big difference, if you define ”a big difference” as settling for Standford when you wanted M.I.T.
Despite the right-wing’s ongoing paranoia about college students, I think this reflects the profound conservatism of most undergraduates. (the 60s were a rare exception.) As Doug Henwood said recently (talking about health care reform), American culture is rooted in traditional notions of rugged individualism; these exercises in meritocratic-hair-splitting are one of the best illustrations I’ve seen recently. Education is (or should be) a collective enterprise, and it’s a shame we can’t bring ourselves to adopt forms of learning assessment that don’t generate these bizarre competitions.