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Failing to Fail?

Harvard, grading, and taking the training wheels off


The Harvard Crimson’s report (following the December 3 Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting) that “The median grade at Harvard College is an A-, and the most frequently awarded mark is an A” set off a mild flurry of debate the other week—as well as references to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.” That conversation has subsided, but some of its undercurrents have been rekindled by this past week’s bomb-threat hoax, in which a sophomore sent e-mails to Harvard officials and campus police warning of “shrapnel bombs” in four locations on campus, apparently in order to avoid having to take a final exam scheduled for that morning. 

The toughest question to resurface: is Harvard failing to prepare its students to weather failure?

In the wake of the grade-inflation revelations, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote a defense of Harvard’s grade distribution. Friedersdorf asserted that most Harvard students “are extremely driven, aren't in need of external motivators to learn, but often react to the grading system by gaming it…they choose earning a higher grade rather than learning more when there is a tension between the two.” Given these premises, Friedersdorf argued, grade inflation (although not “as honest as just doing away with grades and making all classes ‘pass’ or ‘no pass’”) “still probably better facilitates a focus on education” than a forced bell-curve distribution.

Friedersdorf’s case is compelling—I would add that social psychological research has shown that “external motivators” can even crowd out the intrinsic motivation to learn—but there is one aspect of Harvard’s grade inflation we should not take lightly: the situation leaves little room for students to experience and overcome failure. Everyone should be prepared to navigate failure, and many of those most in need of that preparation are elite college students, who—in their ardent, understandable desire to be admitted—have bent over backward to avoid the experience in any form. That need has only been cast in more harsh relief now that we’ve seen a sophomore go to such extreme and tragic lengths to avoid failing a single exam.

Why is failure so important to the grade-inflation conversation? While grades are just one small part of all that a college does, they should support—and certainly not detract from—its educational purpose. We might, for example, think of college as being an institution that helps prepare people to be successful adults (broadly construed).

Considered this way, at first glance, Harvard’s grade inflation—which effectively de-emphasizes the importance of an A—is no immediate cause for concern. Whether in school or in life, we succeed based on how well we perform in a variety of settings: healing sick patients, writing business models, appreciating our spouses, caring for our children. As we age, those evaluations get less explicit and more qualitative: at the early-life end of the spectrum, it is easy to score how good everybody is at trigonometry; at the later-life end of the spectrum, it becomes not just difficult but absurd to try to subject people’s performance to quantitative rank-ordering.

Grades function like training wheels in navigating this transition: they are overt demonstrations of performance evaluation that are gradually taken away as people learn to balance on their own. When Harvard alumni choose to go on to graduate school, they generally find themselves at institutions that don’t even have letter grades—the top law schools, for example, use a high pass/pass/low pass/fail system—or that, like Stanford Business School, aggressively enforce grade secrecy. These alumni will continue to be evaluated—perhaps even with numerical performance scores by the firms they work for—but these evaluations will likely grow less standardized and more qualitatively driven.

But while Harvard’s inflationary grade practices may help by smoothing the transition to less overt performance evaluations, they will not do much to prepare its graduates for the equally inevitable postgraduate experience of failure. 

Many students make it to Harvard—and through Harvard—having successfully dodged that crucible. They are all high-achievers, most of whom spent their high-school careers believing they needed to be superhuman and doing their sleep-deprived best to appear that way. Especially for those who are not student-athletes--and thus do not have a history of getting knocked down and getting back up on the playing field—failure is often a foreign experience.

Failure catches up with everyone; being able to navigate it is a crucial form of resilience. Some of those lessons are straightforward: learning to ask for help when you are struggling, or learning that failure is preferable to cheating. Others are complex, such as figuring out how to rebuild your sense of identity when an idea you have of who you are, or who you plan to become, shatters.    

Within Harvard College, however, academic failure is often treated as a bit of a joke—some students, for example, use a slang term, “Harvard-fail,” to refer to getting a grade somewhere in the B range. Meanwhile, in the rare instances in which real failure confronts us on campus, it can be terrifying—enough so, evidently, to induce a promising sophomore to make an incomprehensibly bad decision. 

When I was a sophomore, I Harvard-failed Statistics 100, the department’s most basic course. This happened in part because I am not gifted in statistics and in part because I slept through the second midterm. That “Harvard fail” was helpful, because I realized that the world did not end—and that I needed to set two alarm clocks if I was going to keep staying up until 4 a.m. But I don’t think it substantially improved my ability to sustain, and bounce back from, a serious personal defeat. 

In Harvard’s defense, my statistics class wasn’t the only place I failed in college. One of my favorite classes, senior lecturer Marshall Ganz’s junior tutorial on community organizing, was built entirely around controlled failure: each of the 10 students had to conceive, plan, and execute a 10-week organizing project around a salient social-justice issue. We were all highly optimistic at the outset—I launched, for example, a community-service program within a 2009 Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, hoping to spur a “service politics” movement—and, needless to say, we all came up short. It is, after all, nearly impossible to transform society in 10 weeks.

That’s one of the important things we learned, but we learned even more by pausing each week to reflect purposefully, both in written form and as a group, on why things weren’t going so well. Why weren’t our volunteers as excited as we were? Why was nobody showing up to our rallies? What could we do to improve things? Ganz’s class is still the exception in Harvard’s course catalog, not the rule, but it’s a move in the right direction.

I feel fortunate that I also failed at Harvard in plenty of other ways. I failed at getting a girl I liked to date me; I organized an event that no one came to; I didn’t get a scholarship I wanted; I failed in my attempts to become a halfway-decent rugby flanker. 

Unfortunately, Harvard has only so much control over whether its students fail in these ways: the school can create the necessary background conditions—having a rugby team—but it holds far less pedagogical power in those arenas than it holds in its classrooms. To the degree that Harvard students are learning to navigate failure in all kinds of extracurricular ways, we should not be overly worried about the fact that they are getting good grades in their coursework. (They got in, after all, because of a demonstrated record of academic prowess.) But if they are not consistently learning to handle failure inside or outside the classroom, then Harvard is doing them a disservice by not providing more curricular opportunities for a reflective, purposeful experience of it. Recent events suggest we may need more classes like Ganz’s: supportive, purposeful, reflective opportunities to fall flat on your face and get up again.

Explicit in Friedersdorf’s argument is the premise of Harvard students’ “compulsion to succeed as others define it and their sheepish failure to prioritize higher-order benefits with their time at college.” I’m not so sure there’s a pathological “compulsion” here so much as a lot of driven, high-capacity people, who have spent their past four or more years striving to perform for a college-admissions system that they have judged—not irrationally—to be important to their futures and that is, in fact, pretty explicit about what it wants: high test scores, stellar grades, outstanding references and extracurriculars. Doing all of that right leaves little room for doing anything wrong.

By helping its high-achieving students transition past the secondary-school model of formal quantitative evaluation and “external motivators,” Harvard’s grade inflation is probably a salutary trend—a backdoor shift, collectively brought about by the individual actions of many professors, to a pseudo-high pass/pass system. Even if the grades stay high, however, Harvard should do all that it can to ensure that its graduates are prepared to survive—and push beyond—the crucible of failure.

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