Failing To Deliver

I have from time to time bemoaned the fact in these blogs that our schools are failing to educate students. I have also noted that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D. C. has decided to do something about the failure of the colleges and universities, in particular. I would argue that the lower grades are failing their students as well, but the approach of the ACTA is to embarrass higher education into cleaning up its house in the expectation that this will require that the lower grades do so as well. If, for example, colleges and universities required two years of a foreign language upon entrance (as they once did), then high schools would have to provide such courses for those students who plan to attend college (as they once did). And this is true even for such basic things as English grammar which is now being taught in remedial courses in a majority of the colleges across this great land of ours — and a few professional schools as well — if you can imagine.

In any event, the ACTA recently sent out a mailing to help raise monies to further their cause. In that material they sent along some disturbing facts that help them make the case for a solid core requirement in all American undergraduate colleges to provide their graduates with the basic tools they will need in order to be productive citizens in a democracy and better able to advance in whatever profession they chose to follow after college. They identify seven areas from composition and literature to mathematics and science which all colleges need to cover; moreover, they have found after an exhaustive survey over several years that the vast majority of American colleges get failing grades. My undergraduate college received an “A” grade, but my graduate school received a grade of “D” because their undergraduate core includes only foreign language and science. If you want to know more you might check out their web page ( The only question that is not raised in their material is why the high schools aren’t teaching these basic courses. One does wonder. In any event, here are some of the facts that they bring forward to make their case against so many of our colleges today:

Even after the highly publicized television series on the Roosevelts, “recent college graduates showed, in large numbers, that they simply don’t know or understand what the Roosevelts did or even the difference between Teddy and Franklyn.” Further, one of the ACTA’s recent surveys showed that “More than half of college graduates didn’t know that Franklyn D. Roosevelt served four terms in office; A third of college graduates couldn’t pick FDR out from a multiple list of the presidents who spearheaded the New Deal; Barely half of the college graduates could identify Teddy Roosevelt as leading the construction of the Panama Canal.” The problem extends much further than failure to know about the Roosevelts. In general terms, quoting from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal,

“A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown. . . .The reason for such failures, according to a recent study: Few schools mandate courses in core subjects like U.S. government, history, or economics. The sixth annual analysis of core curricula at 1,098 four-year colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that just 18% of schools require American history to graduate, 13% require a foreign language, and 3% require economics.”

The truly astonishing (and distressing) thing is that an increasing number of American colleges and universities allow “Mickey Mouse” courses to count as core courses: the University of Colorado offers “Horror Films and American Culture.” UNC-Greensboro considers “Survey of Historic Costumes” a core course, and Richard Stockton College of New jersey lets students satisfy the core history requirement with “Vampires: History of the Undead.” I kid you not. These are examples picked at random from a list that continues to grow as college faculty seek to draw students to their classes (and thereby guarantee their jobs) without any consideration whatever of the benefits of such courses — or lack thereof — to the student. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. As former Harvard President Larry Summers wrote recently:

“The threat today is less from overreaching administrators and trustees than it is from prevailing faculty orthodoxies that make it very difficult for scholars holding certain views to advance in certain fields.”

What Summers is speaking about is the determination of a great many faculty members at our colleges and universities to teach courses they want to teach simply to increase enrollments or, perhaps, to remedy what they perceive as past injustices; most are unwilling to teach courses that draw on Western tradition, the subject matter that has informed generations, because they firmly believe the works of “dead, white European males” are at the core of what is wrong with the world today. Worse yet, they discourage their students from taking such courses and disparage their colleagues who want to teach them. In my experience, many of these same people reveal their own ignorance of the very tradition they turn their backs upon and deny to their students. And they certainly don’t care whether the courses they teach instead will benefit their students in the long run — which would appear to be the central question.

The ACTA seeks to publicly embarrass trustees and alumni at American colleges and universities into putting pressure on the administrations and governing boards to remedy this situation. And it is working. The organization has attracted a great deal of attention to the problem and keeps a list of the colleges and universities that have modified their core requirements; they annually gives grades to all in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that in so many cases parents and students are simply not getting their money’s worth — especially given the escalating costs of college tuition these days.


Inflated Grades and Ethics

In a presentation to an ATHENA Roundtable sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, former Harvard President Larry Summers made a provoking comment, noting that grade inflation in our schools and colleges is a moral issue. “A society that tolerates the grade inflation of its students should not be surprised when it finds the inflation of corporate earnings in those students 20 years later.” Grade inflation is indeed a moral issue, because it is dishonest and disrespectful for teachers and professors to give students grades they don’t deserve. And the teachers and professors are shirking their responsibility.

There is no question that grade inflation is common in our academic communities and has been for some time. The data are compelling and need not be recounted here. But one glaring example is Columbia University Medical School which no longer gives preferential treatment to Harvard graduates because they all have an “A” average. I recall a few years ago when I was chairman of a large department and had access to copies of grade reports I saw that a number of my colleagues, especially in the education department, simply weren’t giving grades lower than A-. This is absurd. Worse, it is dishonest and, and as I say, disrespectful of the students. They deserve better: they deserve to be treated fairly.

When the lowest grade in a course with 30 students in it is an A- the student who has worked hard and has done really well gets what is essentially the same grade as everyone else. And when the poorer students who have been passed along with high grades graduate and go to work they are in for a shock. Employers are not likely to be so generous. In this regard, one could argue that giving a higher grade than the student deserves is not only disrespectful, but also mean, since it fuels the students’ illusion that he or she has a greater mastery of the material than is in fact the case.

We are fond of saying that the problems we have in the schools merely reflect the larger problems in society as a whole. This may actually be true in this case, though I doubt it as a general rule: some problems in the schools are peculiar to the academic world. But grade inflation is assuredly a symptom of our permissive society. We hate to say “no” to our kids for fear we will stunt their growth and development. That’s what we have been told for years by pop psychologists and we have taken it to heart — even though it is a lot of hogwash. Kids need to be told “no” when they make mistakes; it’s one of the first words they should be taught at home. Further, they can learn important lessons from their failures. That’s one of the most persuasive reasons to keep sports in the schools: sports are one of the few places left where kids are asked to do things they may not want to do and failure is a given. Not everyone can win. And not everyone should be given an A grade when their work is only average.

So what can be done? There’s a simple solution. And that is to record all of the students’ grades with a parenthesis after each grade noting the average grade in that class. Thus if Susan gets an A in biology and her report notes that the average grade in that class was a C- we know Susan did a great job. If Sarah gets a B in sociology where the average grade was B+ we know her performance was below par. The grades will start to mean something and faculty will be more inclined to give honest grades as the reports will reveal how “generous” they were in grading the students in the class. No one wants to be found out!

But in the end, we need to accept the fact that grade inflation is indeed a moral problem, as Larry Summers noted. And in doing so we need to consider what we can do about it instead of simply looking away with a shrug and saying “that’s a common problem; it’s just  the way things are.” It doesn’t have to be.