Schwalb: Making the grade

It’s no secret that grade inflation differs by department. Science and engineering majors get more work and less grade fluffing than the rest of us. The result is a high turnover of matriculating students who rush from the sciences to the humanities, as well as a science-phobia among humanities students. These symptoms are antithetical to a liberal arts education, and it is within our power to treat the disease.

The cure starts with shopping period. Science students — who must master an array of well-defined skills — cannot shop for courses as easily. Non-science departments should place greater emphasis on teaching the skills of their fields and set requirements accordingly. Such a change has obvious merit of its own, plus it would help level the playing field between a Bachelors of Science and a Bachelors of Arts. The root of the problem is that the meaning of a Bachelor of Science degree depends to a greater degree on the graduate’s ability to actually use the specifics of her coursework in practice. A mechanical engineering grad student will necessarily need a thorough knowledge of thermodynamics, while a new law school admit can afford to forget the specifics of Durkheim.

This root problem plays itself out in two ways. First, the direct continuity of the curriculum between undergrad and grad programs means that science departments can be easily held accountable for producing sub-par graduates. Second, B.S. requirements are highly specific, so science and engineering majors cannot readily shop courses for easy graders.

Shopping period is made for Yale’s Psychology, English, and History majors. The departments are bursting with available classes and there are few department requirements to hold them back. Only superstar professors like Shelly Kagan can afford to deflate grades and still attract students. Grade inflation has its benefits. For one, busywork and lower grades increase stress without necessarily improving education. Second, grade inflation allows students to devote more time to sports and clubs. But the different levels of grade inflation across departments do cause problems. Science students drop out. And non-science students face a classic insurance market failure of pooling; they refuse to take rigorous science courses, because the GPA drop will seem strange to employers given their non-science degree. Worst of all, students who begin as science majors and graduate in Economics are left saddled with an undeservedly low ranking in their major.

So, what can the university do? Theoretically, it could curve the curves and standardize grading across all departments. But this approach would be horribly authoritarian. The administration could also get honest and allow non-science students to receive inflated grades in rigorous science courses. But this approach would prove a pipe dream and an unfair solution to the problem.

A small-scale and pragmatic approach would be for non-science departments to reconsider their requirements. Take History as an example. The major requires students take a distribution of courses defined by time and geography. History majors need two pre-industrial courses, two US history courses etc. Is this what really defines a successfully history graduate? I don’t think so.

A successful non-science graduate is defined by her thinking skills and mastery of methodology as much as her knowledge of the subject’s material. A successful history graduate should understand historiography, clear writing, assessment of rational argument, assessment of empirical argument as well as the time and geography distribution currently in place. Currently, these skills are assessed piecemeal in each history class rather than becoming a particular course’s focus. A student could conceivably be fantastic at assessing rational argument without ever mastering empirical historical methodology. Each history class could focus on a history related skill, as well as a time period. The distribution requirements could prescribe these skills along with necessary subject matter. Such a change would not only ensure a more complete non-science education, it would reduce the bargaining power of non-science shoppers over grades.

All departments—not just those in science—should teach classes geared at specific skills and require them of their students. At a basic level, grades and departmental requirements are not all that a Yale degree signifies. It should signify mastery in the skills of one subject as well as a breadth of knowledge. This pragmatic change will not obliterate the divide between science hill and the rest of campus. It won’t radically change the way students approach majors. But for science students, it will be a small step towards fairness — and for the rest of us, a deeper education.

Nathaniel Schwalb is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.

Correction: January 18, 2011

The original online version of this column misstated Nathaniel Schwalb’s class year.