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Thus explains the “type A+ student” paradox that affects elite universities. Unless you’re in serious denial, Stanford and its counterparts have some serious grade inflation issues. And most of us, in theory, want it to go away: after all, with grade inflation, the A’s we do deserve have their value diminished.
But there’s a problem–as the New York Times found at Princeton, us type A+ students are pretty attached to our A’s. When it comes to actually putting a cap on grade inflation, we realize that it means our transcripts are going to be adorned with other, strange letters, and we don’t want that. As the Daily Princetonian rationalizes:
The psychological influence of this knowledge on students when in a precept or seminar can lead to increased competition and tensions among peers. Many take it into account when choosing courses, affecting their willingness to pursue challenging classes. [...And] we also suspect that the policy is hurting the prospects of Princetonians in both the job market and graduate school admissions.
Maybe the only answer, then, is to just ignore the problem and accept the fact that everyone can get good grades.
Don Kennedy, former president of Stanford, wrote a 1994 op-ed in the New York Times, saying:
Part of it is that Stanford and other leading universities are doing what their critics have demanded: offering more seminars and independent-study courses for advanced students, in which higher grades are always more prevalent.
Kennedy’s conclusion? The grades themselves don’t matter–what’s important is the academic quality. This conclusion, which I agree with, underscores the real disease in the system: grades mean way too much. People are not at Stanford to learn, they are there to get good grades. I, too, am guilty of this: for many classes, I simply do the bare minimum work to get the grade I want, and all of the work I do is in an attempt to achieve this. This is a fundamental flaw in our academic culture, and the academic culture of our fellow elite institutions, and it means that no matter the academic quality Stanford purports to or wants to deliver, it will inherently be hindered.
So what’s to be done? Short of eliminating grades, probably nothing. While grade inflation might be aggravating and disconcerting, we care too much about grades to change the system in any way. And hopefully we can somehow convince ourselves to participate in class discussions not for the participation points but for the value of intellectual engagement, and not value our grades in relations to our peers.
Chances are, though, I’ll still be motivated by the desire for my A no matter what–and so will everyone else.