Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Note to the Educational Establishment

Hearing Rep. Rahm Emanuel argue in favor of "universal college education" reminded me of why undergraduate college degrees are diminishing in value, and why the culture of "it's cool to be dumb" is becoming prevalent on college campuses.

We pretend that everybody is equal in aptitude.

We simultaneously accept that everybody should have the opportunity to do well.

As a result we create a system which caters to the lowest common denominator. In high schools and increasingly in colleges, mediocrity not only earns a passing grade - it can earn an "A".

Our society should try to ensure that everybody has educational opportunity which helps them achieve their maximum potential. But we need to stop pretending that everybody is equal in their potential, or that vocational training is somehow less worthy than a college degree.

I'm not arguing for trying to force people into particular academic or vocational tracks based upon their aptitude. Individuals should still be able to choose the academic or training path they desire. But if somebody is unable or unwilling to do the work necessary to justify a passing grade based on merit, that person should receive a failing grade.

Failure can be stigmatizing, but we exaggerate that effect by creating a system in which virtually nobody fails. A system in which we pretend that if people try hard (even if we really know that most of them aren't really trying) almost everybody can earn an "A".


  1. I don't think the "average A" at high schools is so much about egalitarianism as about pushing students into more elite colleges.

  2. Sure, and there can be some genuinely negative consequences of grade inflation for good students - particularly for kids at schools which apply a lower curve. That continues through undergraduate programs and, of course, graduate school - where in most curricula anything less than an "A" amounts to a failing grade.

    But "nobody fails" is not aimed at top students. Nor are remedial programs to get college freshmen to the point at which they should have been functioning as high school freshmen.