The Suicide of Meritocracy

Harvey Mansfield, "The Suicide of Meritocracy," The Weekly Standard, August 14, 2017.

Grade inflation has popped up again in the news, this time with the disclosure that it has spread to American high schools. High schools, public and especially private, now serve up 50 percent A’s to their students, just like the universities. It’s part of the college preparation track in high schools to keep graduates from being shocked by the flattery they are about to receive from the college of their choice.

We have reason to believe that the high schools are inflating grades because scores on the SAT (test of aptitude) have dipped slightly as grades have gone up. It is easy to attempt too much refinement in quantitative measures of human behavior and easier still to attempt to gain trust for the results. But the new standard of high schools and the most prestigious colleges is to give more straight A’s than any other grade. Just to hear that is enough to know that something is wrong in American education.

How deeply wrong? I have been speaking against grade inflation most of my career, and the longer I continue, the deeper I think the wrong of it goes. The last time I raised the matter at a Harvard faculty meeting, I was greeted by embarrassed silence. The faculty senate considered it for a while—and decided to do nothing, not even to deplore it. President Drew Faust has to my recollection and in my hearing never said anything about it. Among the Ivy League universities Princeton decided a few years ago to take measures to reduce grade inflation, hoping to be followed by others. But after getting no response other than student complaints, a new president rescinded Princeton’s modest reform.

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