On Grade Inflation, Harvard Gets an F

Harvard University Massachusetts Hall
Last week, NPR interviewed Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield on the university's notorious propensity to inflate grades. Apparently, the most frequent grade awarded at one of the nation's most competitive schools is an A. The reason? Harvard students are overachievers, and if professors award them an A- or less, these students will suffer a mental breakdown. What’s more, since everyone is doing their best, there's no need to create disappointment. 
 
I'm sorry, what? We’re talking about an A- here. Not an F or a C. And we’re talking about Harvard, the institution geared to producing the leaders of tomorrow. If Harvard doesn't want to disappoint these kids, then who will?  Are they all guaranteed to find a job? Will they all be top employees?  How will they overcome business realities like layoffs? How will they handle the simple realization that they are not as smart as they thought they were?  Can society produce enough Prozac to help these "kids" endure life when it inevitably disappoints them?
 
We lay the foundation of our life in our twenties. We have to prepare to deal with reality. If we shield students from this experience, we are setting up an entire generation for disaster. 
 
Perhaps we need to work on convincing ourselves of certain truths once again: It's OK to get an F and study again and get an A. It's OK to know that someone is much smarter than you are and that it takes you three times as long to study for a test. It's OK to know that in certain subjects, you'll never get an A. It's more than just OK to fail - it's necessary to fail and to fail a lot. One cannot succeed without the ability to fail and to learn from one’s failures. 
 
Grade inflation is immoral.  It’s disrespectful of human abilities, and it's condescending. We are all wired for challenge, especially young people.  Challenge the youth and we will cut the number of psychiatrists in the United States in half. Challenge them, provoke them, use a little sarcasm and they will blossom. A human being is designed to overcome, to prove, to achieve. By failing at this task, Harvard is undermining the very core of its mission and setting a poor example for other universities in the process. Harvard gets an F. 
 
by Inessa Rifkin
CEO & Founder, RSM

 

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