Return to Lake Wobegon, where every student receives an “A”

It’s been 10 years, almost to the day, since my original post on grade inflation, [1] so I thought it was time for an update. However, as I was looking into new data, I realized that grade inflation is just one part of a much bigger challenge facing society – not preparing our children for a life where they will experience failures and face obstacles that must be overcome.

First the update

The important priorities in college, such as the omelet bar at Virginia Tech’s dining, hall haven’t changed. [10]

The bottom line is grade inflation remains alive and well. In fact, it is thriving. For all the reasons listed in the original post, grades received by students today are increasingly meaningless and irrelevant. All the students in Wobegon [2] are now not only above average, but they are also likely maintaining a 4.0.

In fact, 50 percent of high school students now graduate with a 4.0. [3] In college, not only has A become the most frequent grade [4], more and more students are graduating with honors. For example, an article in the Wall Street Journal, “You Graduated Cum Laude? So Did Everyone Else,”  [5] noted that at Princeton University and the University of Southern California, nearly half of graduates receive cum laude, magna cum laude. or summa cum laude honors. The same article offered a glimpse into how at least one student rationalized the high number of students receiving Latin honors. At a ceremony on the eve of her commencement, Anna Del Castillo, a Tufts magna cum laude, was surprised at the number of students receiving honors. Rather than seeing that as diluting the value of the designations, Castillo’s response was, “Wow, I go to school with brilliant people.”

Unfortunately, grade inflation is firmly entrenched in our learning institutions. The graphic below shows the results of Princeton’s attempt at grade deflation. [6]  Although the program failed, I’d still give them an”A” for effort. Yet another case of grade inflation.

High grades as a predictor of success?

Inflated grades, beyond making students and parents feel good about themselves, don’t do much else. To be sure, they are not directly related to achievement outside the artificial environment of school. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google said “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria (sic) for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.” [7]

Instead, there is growing evidence that something else is a much more important predictor of achievement than a high GPA – grit. The passion and perseverance that define grit have been shown to be a better predictor of success than any other single factor, including high grades. [8] [9]  Some of the grittiest students may be “C” students.

High grades are not the same as high learning

Besides the unbridled consumerism cantering its way through our colleges, I wonder how much adults are contributing to grade inflation by taking steps to ensure their offspring are exceptional. If that is the case, it is not working. Sure, GPAs are increasing across the board, but the result of those grades – a degree, have become devalued. Today, a bachelor’s degree has become the new high school diploma [11] [12] and master’s degrees have become as common as bachelor’s degrees in the 1960s. [13]

If grade inflation resulting from easy grading dilutes learning as suggested by Gershenson, [14] then are we raising generations that receive exceptional grades but are learning less? Probably. It seems we may have succumbed to preparing the road for the students instead of preparing the students for the road.

Grade inflation is a symptom, not the disease

Grade inflation feeds into the narrative presented by Haidt and Lukianoff in their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” [15] They suggest that adults’ attempt to shield their children (students) has led to what they define as a culture of “safetyism” where obstacles are removed and exposure to conflicting opinions or situations is prevented. This results in the development of students who are fragile and ill-equipped to function and thrive in the “real world.” In order to flourish in life, one must go beyond just being resilient and embrace the concept of antifragility.

Taleb once explained antifragility this way, “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” [16]

He also provides a mathematical approach to identify antifragility as evidenced by the following excerpt from his article “Mathematical Definition, Mapping, and Detection of (Anti)Fragility.” [17]

Do inflated grades facilitate alternate realities?

Grade inflation may be but one harbinger of a trend toward developing a fragile society. It is becoming increasingly easy to construct an alternative reality where we can shape the world we want through selective interaction on social media where opinions conveniently align with ours. The problem is that when everyone can tailor a reality to match their fears and suspicions, we find ourselves in the situation where we are no longer a functional society, but an accretion of loosely connected social clusters. That is a pathway that can lead to distrust and polarization on a grand scale.

An early manifestation of that happening would be a country with a significant proportion of the population embracing racism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and rejecting civility, science, and facts. Sound familiar?

The fall of society due to grade inflation? No, but we do need to help our young people understand and accept that it is entirely normal and expected that life will present challenges and hardships. Once out of school, the truth is that not everyone gets an “A.” We should instill in them a sense of security and confidence to not be threatened by different ideas or opinions. We can teach them that we can learn more from our failures than our successes. We can teach them to be antifragile.

We can help them understand that only in Lake Wobegon can everyone be above average.

Cover art for the 1985 Viking hardcover and the 1986 Penguin paperback first editions of Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor. Illustration by Peter Thorpe.



















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