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As the piece itself makes clear, the following article was written as an intervention into a debate at Stanford University over grade inflation. A proposal submitted to the Faculty Senate called for restoring the "F" grade (euphemistically to be called NP for No Pass), shorten the period of no penalty withdrawal from a course and reduce the possibilities of retaking a course. In short, a crack-down on grades. This proposal angered some students and some faculty who opposed it. I read about the conflict on May 31, 1994, wrote the following text the same day and sent it off to Stanford, to the student paper (The Stanford Daily) and to the professors and students opposing it. (With whom I had spoken on the phone.) It arrived after the last issue of the quarter had been put to bed and so was not published prior to vote. Two days later, on Thursday June 2, 1994 Faculty Senate voted 38 to 3 to accept the proposal cracking down on grading. As the end of this piece suggests, the struggle goes on!

Worried About Grade Inflation? Abolish Grades!

Harry Cleaver*
(Stanford Ph.D., 1975)

Special to the Stanford Daily

Austin, Texas., May 31 -- 6:30am. Bleary-eyed, I sip my caffeine and flip through the morning New York Times looking for inspiration, some sign of grassroots struggle, maybe even a victory to get the adrenlin flowing. Finally, on page 7, a title jumps out at me: "At Stanford, A Rebellion On Grades". All right! Something's stirring at my old alma mater!

"The grade F does not exist here", I read, "The C is fast becoming extinct." Hmm! The current generation has things well in hand, I think to myself. Maybe they are pushing for the complete abolition of grades. At a place like Stanford, that would be a real change!

But no, reading on I discover that instead of students in rebellion against grades, a handful of conservative faculty members are trying to crack down on students, to whip up faculty support for harder grading! So the anti-grade inflation counter-revolution has come to Stanford! It's a campaign I know well, for it has been going on here at the University of Texas where I teach for years.

The arguments for harder grading, I see, are familiar, especially: "Stanford doesn't give failing grades. This penalizes good students at the expense of poor students." What such statements really mean, of course, is that employers can't identify students who do what they are told and work hard because their record of obedience and toil doesn't stand out if the grade hierarchy is too narrow. Standard ploy: mobilize the workaholics against the slackers. Use the would-be CEOs against the independently-minded who resist discipline and follow their own paths of learning.

Let's cut through the euphemistic rhetoric of the debate and get to the real issues.

The fight over grade inflation is about the imposition of work and how much freedom students have to pursue their own studies, in the classroom and out. The harder the grading, the more students have to obey higher "authorities" (professors and the adminstration). The easier the grading, the more time and energy are liberated for each student (or for groups of students collectively) to think independently, to read on their own, to explore aspects of life they may have just discovered, or to delve into whatever issues their intellectual and sensual curiosities may have raised for them.

Sources of Grade Inflation: the Historical Background

During the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s, many of us who were students (and a few professors) understood this. We saw that the university had been organized by business as a factory to produce both research and waged workers. We fought to sever the links with business, partly through easier grading. We fought to open space and liberate time to do the things we felt we had to do (such as research into Stanford's complicity with the war against Vietnam) and the things we wanted to do (such as all those bizarre and fun courses that thrived for a while in the Mid-Peninsula Free University we created alongside Stanford). We looked at how the university had divided up knowledge and sought to mold us into narrow disciplines and set to work overcoming the divisions and creating our own syntheses. We caught glimpses of all the drama of life the university excluded from its curriculum and set about creating the courses that weren't being taught (Black Studies, Women's studies and so on) and went outside the university to get what couldn't be brought in.

At the time success on the grade front was mostly achieved indirectly rather than directly. The general atmosphere created by frequent confrontations with both administrators and professors led even those professors who were not being directly challenged to be careful about provoking their no-longer-compliant students. (Most professors, of course, deny such influences.)

Less antagonistically, the combination of challenges to received academic "truth" together with the positive assertion of new values undercut some professors' certainty about what they were teaching and made them more open to recognizing that there were many more valid paths to a meaningful "university education" than they had dreamed. (Professors tend to prefer this more progressive explanation that credits their openness rather than blaming their fears.)

The Wider Economic Context

This history of academic struggle parallels a similar history in the economy as a whole. The conservative outrage against "grade inflation" mirrors their better known outrage against price inflation. The current campaign against "grade inflation" should be understood as directly parallel to the more than a decade-old assault on "inflation" that has characterized the last five federal administrations (Carter, Reagan {2X}, Bush, Clinton).

Ever since Jimmy Carter brought Paul Volcker into the Fed to spearhead an all-out monetarist assault on prices by tightening the money supply and driving up interest rates, U.S. economic policy has been dominated by a continuing preoccupation with inflation. Current debates over Greenspan's repeated jacking up of interest rates are only the most recent manifestation of this concern.

Hidden behind the distaste for price inflation of conservatives (and of policy makers more generally) has been a more profound abhorrence of wage increases that exceed productivity growth, raising costs, threatening to cut into profits and spurring companies to raise prices in order to defend their bottom line. (This the textbooks call "wage-push" inflation.)

During the same period that militant students were achieving higher grades, militant workers in private industry and public service were also achieving higher wages. Partly these gains stemmed from their own struggles. Partly they stemmed from young workers bringing to their jobs militant attitudes learned earlier on the streets and in schools. Partly they stemmed from the parallel struggles of peasants in South East Asia and elsewhere in the Third World. The rise in American wages was accompanied, and partly supported, by an expansion in Federal welfare and warfare expenditure ("demand pull" inflation) and an accomodating monetary policy that made a general rise in the price level possible.

Wages and Grades

We are not, however, just talking about analogies here. At the heart of the clear historical parallels between grade inflation and price inflation, lies the basic homology between grades and wages. As a general rule, wages are the monies workers get in return for working for business (whether directly in industry or indirectly in the state, whether in Stanford's industrial park, or on campus). The harder they work, they are told (often fraudulently), the more wages they will earn. Grades, on the other hand, are supposed to be IOUs on future wages. Good grades now, "educators" promise, will mean good wages later. Grades, like the university diploma, are both an index of work performed and an indicator for business of an individual's willingness to work in the future.

Just as business always seeks to pay out wages in an hierarchical fashion (to divide and conquer its labor force), so too does it expect schools to pay out grades in a similar manner. Effective grades are those which make it easy for business to choose low entropy workers over high entropy workers, i.e., those whose energies are available for work, over those whose energies are deployed in other ways. The current conservative attack on "phony grades" must be understood as a response to the perceived erosion in the usefulness of grades to business.

The policy perscriptions for fighting price inflation and grade inflation are also similar: tight money and firings among the waged, tigher grading and more flunking among students. In both cases high unemployment is used to weed out the slackers and instill fear and a willingness to work harder among those who remain. In both cases, the opportunities for self-directed activity are squeezed by the imposition of increased authority and discipline.

Along with such overall policies go the micro restructurings: the closing of plants and businesses where workers have too much power and high wages which have undermined profits, the closing of specialized study programs created by student struggles. Greater scrutiny of the work records of perspective employees in industry finds its parallel in the tightening of admission requirements in schools. It's easier to keep the slackers out to start with, than to get rid of them once they cause trouble.

Traditionally, waged workers and students are thought to occupy worlds apart --especially at an institution such as Stanford where students are expected to graduate into professional and managerial jobs. However, not only are such positions merely the upper ranges of of the wage hierarchy, but in today's increasingly informational society the intellectual work of students, especially graduate students, differs little from the work they will soon be doing for a wage. Business management of the labor force today includes, more than ever, the management of the unwaged, school labor force. We professors are supposed to work in two ways: research and publish (or perish!) and oversee/manage the work of students. No wonder the problems and the conflicts are so much alike in the academy and in "the real world".

Abolish Grades!

The implications of all this for students should be clear. If they can do nothing more, they must fight against the conservative backlash to preserve what freedom they have. If they can get organized they should take the offensive and fight for greater freedom, in part through the abolition of grades.

Abolishing grades would not only liberate more time and energy for student self-activity, it would throw the burden and cost of evaluating a persons' willingness and ability to do a waged job back where it belongs, on the would-be employer. Grades and degrees are the historical result of shifting such costs from business to the taxpayer and future employee. Why not force business to pay for what it wants! As some small liberal arts colleges (e.g., Evergreen State College) have demonstrated, the abolition of grades does not result in less learning, but more learning as students are motivated to pursue their own paths to understanding. Imagine how much fun it would be to extend those experiences to a larger institution like Stanford. Unfortunately, it should also be clear that success at any one institution will be limited by the broader context. Even places like Evergreen include evaluations in their transcripts for the benefit of employers. Battles can be won on individual campuses, but the war can only be won at the level of society as a whole.

Can Allies Be Found in the Professoriat?

And what of the faculty in all this? Some clearly want a restoration, even an extension, of their authority. They want the power to judge, to impose grades, utlimately to fail students, to throw the disobedient ones out of school/factory. Those are guards on The Wall Pink Floyd understood so well!

Others are afraid of the consequences of a public perception that the Stanford degree is being devalued by grade inflation. They are afraid for their own status, their own job market prospects and, perhaps more generously (though rather paternalistically), for those of their students. They include those who embrace the university as factory and training ground and those who simply believe there is no alternative. Such faculty are likely to support the conservative backlash and resist further steps toward greater freedom.

But there are probably many others who have come to understand how grades (and the power relations they embody) stand between professors and students. There are bound to be many who realize how the most onerous part of a professor's work is imposing tests and grades. Many, either consciously or subconsciously, know that easy grading means easy work: less anxiety in the classroom, less worry about attendance, less work of supervision during tests, fewer confrontations in the office, less guilt for having destroyed the life of someone you barely know.

They also know that easier grading creates more time for them as well as for students: more time to read, to talk with colleagues or students, to reinvigorate their professional research by exploring outside their own fields, to play with their kids, to spend time with their lovers. Professors are also human, at least most of them, and the power structures of the university weigh down their lives just as they do those of students.

Some have discovered, and rebel against, the way some university adminstrations pit professors against students by using a professor's grading record in deciding promotion: rewarding hard graders and penalizing easy ones. Does Stanford do this? It might be useful to find out.

Students are also pitted against professors when student evaluations of courses and profs are used not to improve teaching but to impose more discipline.

Some professors, I guarantee, can be found who dream of teaching with no grades, of a world where the only people who come to class or lab are those who are there because they want to be, who are eager to learn and curious and questioning with an enthusiasm that only comes with self-motivation.

As you know, some professors shun undergraduate teaching and prefer their research and interaction with graduate students. One positive reason (there are many negative ones) behind such behavior is that they thus avoid all the hassles of grading and the imposition of discipline and enjoy the greater stimulation of being engaged with students in a joint endeavor. These kinds of feelings can be appealed to by students fighting grades who want essentially the same thing: a chance to work with professors in a common search for understanding.

I don't know what will be the outcome of the Stanford Faculty Senate vote on Thursday, but one thing is certain: the struggle over grades will continue. The battle over grades is over the soul of the university. Those who cry "Fight grade inflation!" and campaign for tougher grading are choosing discipline over the freedom to choose. Those who fight against such increased discipline are choosing greater freedom for students and faculty alike.

*Harry Cleaver was a graduate student in economics at Stanford from 1967 to 1971 and heavily involved in the antiwar movement. He was one of the authors of the Student Minority Report of the President's Committee on the Stanford Research Institute (1969) that challenged its role linking the university with business and the Vietnam war. He was also one of the founders of the Pacific Studies Center, a radical think-tank still operating on the peninsula. His e-mail address is hmcleave@austin.utexas.edu.