Too Smart To Fail

Originally published inTimes Higher Education on July 2, 2009.

“Pedagogy,” Lionel Trilling once wrote, “is a depressing subject to all persons of sensibility.” So much the worse for sensibility. College teachers, busily finishing spring classes, are again met by that scourge of intellectual conscience and discernment, that bane of sensibility: grade inflation.

The moment arrives this year with a deflationary panic everywhere in evidence. A Columbia professor writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times urges us to “End the University as We Know It.” A Wall Street Journal column, “So You Want to be a Professor?”, taunts those considering graduate school. In The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco shows how busted university endowments made themselves victims of the same exotic financial investments shaking down other institutions. Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors (2008) and Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works (2008) argue that the system is all too rational, with winners and losers made and unmade by the pitiless logic of its labor market.

Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor and founder of, published the most recent large body of data on March 10. “If current trends hold,” he writes, “A will be the average in the coming decade at most of the highly selective private colleges and universities in the United States.” Rojstaczer draws his conclusions from 200 schools with combined enrollment of more than two million. But the range of opinion on the matter is wider than his conclusions. Isn’t the phenomenon in question better called grade compression, devaluation, or conflation?(A pedagogy of the compressed?) A group of papers from a conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003, published last year as Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education, captures diversity of thinking so well that a conscientious reader may come away more confused than before. Some of the participants deny that grade inflation exists at all.

Are students getting smarter? We have no way to compare grades across disciplines and professional schools. The question, moreover, implies the ability to track smartness across time, a method discouraged by the radical historicism predominant in the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s. The postmodern academy refers the disappearing distinction between potential and performance to the endlessness of interpretation. Citing the untapped potential of a student is the most common gesture in the bid to raise grades—as if learning to tap one’s potential is not the aim of education, or the meaning of achievement does not lie in limits. To be judged not on what one has done, but on what one might have done if only the context had been different!

Abolishing grades would expose students to greater self-knowledge. Higher education would return to the project of moral improvement that Trilling claimed for liberalism. “The distressing thing about our examination questions is that they are not ridiculous,” he complained, “they make perfectly good sense—such good sense that the young person who answers them can never again know the force and terror of what has been communicated to him by the works he is being examined on.”

Student have the political and economic rights to be graded, so to protect them from tyrannical teachers and to protect their investments from themselves. But many students abrogate their moral right to be confronted with “the force and terror.” They see themselves as young professionals.

The nineteenth-century founders of the professions organized teaching and learning around “a vertical vision that compelled persons to look upward, forever reaching toward their potential and their becoming, the fulfillment of their true nature,” according to Burton J. Bledstein’s, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. “The fear of failing gnawed away at every climber, and this fear—ubiquitous in the middle class—was often the source of a general anxiety within individuals which no amount of monetary security, public honors, or personal confidence seemed to eliminate.” When students hustle for a higher grade, when they claim to deserve an A because I showed up to every class and did all the assignments they are acting as clients, treating teachers as service providers in a scheme of advancement. They look through us with “vertical vision.”

We have taught them too well and too little. Last month, The Boston Globe quoted the following words from a pink bulletin handed out to participants in a Harvard seminar on rejection: “We learn to recognize our bad feelings as an indication that we care, we have high standards and high hopes, and we expect a lot of ourselves and of the world, rather than assuming that we are hopelessly untalented or unworthy.” All that’s missing is the word “vile” to complete the old Calvinist idiom of despair and devotion, now dressed up in therapeutic jargon that scarcely manages to contain the hysteria for professional, conventional success.

“On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” the essay by Lionel Trilling, portrays the university as a locus of spiritual seduction, seething with unresolved conflicts and compromises. Trilling himself seems diffident before the worldly demands visited upon the academic professional, impassioned strictly before a higher calling. Insofar as the students obey his terms, they do so “with a happy vagueness, a delighted glibness, a joyous sense of power in the use of received or receivable generalizations, a grateful wonder at how easy it is to formulate and judge, at how little resistance language offers to their intentions.” The term-papers come in. His heart sinks. “When that despair strikes us we are tempted to give up the usual and accredited ways of evaluating education.”

Trilling navigated the rival demands of teaching and criticism with a distinction as archaic in the 1950s and 1960s as it is irrelevant today. As the work itself imposed its own demands and standards, so he taught the work first, the students second. His pedagogy tried to close the gap from both ends.

The academic profession has never agreed on the function of grades. The party of sensibility has known all along that another conversation was happening at the margins of our universities. Not grading and scoring, but possession and inhabitation have been its manner of valuation. May it serve as one measure of our reconstruction.