Havre de Grace. -- Afew days ago I attended a ceremony at McDonogh School for new members of Cum Laude, the national scholastic honor society. Two dozen students were initiated, and Judy Woodruff, the television journalist, made a gracious little speech.
It was an uplifting occasion, implicitly affirming the old idea that true academic achievement matters and that those who attain it should be recognized, singled out and honored. But there was also a disquieting sense that gatherings such as this haven't the joy and vitality they did a few years ago.
Any honor society worthy of the name recognizes only the elite, and such recognition is out of synch with the spirit of these drearily egalitarian times. It was hard not to reflect, upon leaving the McDonogh ceremony, that these recently-honored students will soon be going out into a society in which most academic honors have been made meaningless because everyone gets them.
The prestige universities, perhaps not surprisingly, have not only acquiesced in the debasement of traditional grading, they've often led the way. At Brown University for the last 20 years, only three letter grades have been given: A, B and C. In 1992, 37 percent of the grades given at Brown were As, while Cs accounted for 8 percent. (Brown students can also choose pass/no credit grading, which they do about 22 percent of the time -- presumably when doing D-level work.)
Harvard still has Ds and Es, but hardly ever gives them. Last year, Harvard Magazine reports, 91 percent of Harvard undergraduate grades were B- or above. At Princeton, 80 percent of undergraduates get only As and Bs. At Williams last year, 48 percent of the 520 graduating seniors received degrees with "honors." At Dartmouth, the average letter grade has risen from C to B since 1958, and the grade-point average has increased from 2.2 to 3.2.
This kind of Ivy League grade inflation meshes perfectly with trends at the elementary and secondary school levels. In 1966, American high schools gave twice as many Cs as As, according to a University of California study, but by 1978 the As had outnumbered the Cs. By 1990, 54 percent of freshmen entering private universities had average grades of A- or above.
Some "educators" -- whatever they are -- will tell you that this is because the kids are getting smarter, and hope you believe it. (It's true that while grades were getting better national test scores were simultaneously getting worse, but the educators see a way around this annoying contradiction. Like Superintendent Stuart Berger in Baltimore County, they're trying get rid of grades entirely.)
The causes of college-level grade inflation are many and varied, but politics and timidity stand out. During the Vietnam era, as President Clinton will recall, good grades were vital to successful evasion of the draft. At Harvard, retired professor David Riesman remembers a student telling him "that if I didn't pass him I was sending him to his death in Vietnam."
William Cole, a Harvard teaching assistant, observes that because many courses in the social sciences and humanities have become highly ideological, they tend to attract students who share a political perspective. So "the teacher is surrounded not by students but by disciples. And hey -- you give your disciples As."
At the school level, whether public or private, meaningful grades are doomed once the administration and curriculum are captured by "educators." Procedural changes may be camouflaged in babble about "non-judgmental teaching" and "self-esteem," but they are all driven by the desire to stamp out any distinction between achievers and non-achievers.
Parents who try to change this as individuals are met by tactics designed to confuse them, divert them and, above all, wear them down. When they get together and organize, as some parents have recently done in Baltimore County, they're depicted as enemies -- troublemakers and crackpots seeking to impose "censorship" on the schools.
All school administrators talk about "parent involvement," but only the good ones really want such a thing. To the others, actively involved parents aren't an asset. They're a threat, and like mushrooms are best kept in the dark.
Thomas Sowell, the economist and social historian, notes that in turn-of-the-century one-room schools in Kansas, students seeking to graduate from the eighth grade had to be able to diagram sentences, spell reasonably difficult words and -- for example -- calculate the interest due on a $900 note, at 8 percent, after two years, two months and six days.
Nowadays, by contrast, we edit traditional textbooks and works of literature to make them more "accessible." In the publishing business this process has a name. It's called "dumbing down."
There are plenty of schools left where the dumbing-down process hasn't penetrated. The 24 McDonogh juniors and seniors initiated this week into Cum Laude didn't look dumbed down, and neither did their classmates. But the virus is out there in the bigger world they're headed for, and it's a lot bigger threat to their futures than cholesterol, asbestos or global warming.
Peter Jay's column appears here each week.