ZELINSKY: The culture of Yale College

On Point

In a “the emperor has no clothes” moment, a faculty committee recently concluded that grade inflation plagues Yale. The solution? Replace letter grades with numbers on a zero-to-one-hundred scale.

While certainly deserving of consideration, this proposed policy misses a broader issue: Grade inflation is the symptom of our undergraduate culture. We cannot discuss why students gravitate toward easier courses with guaranteed A-minuses, without discussing the social and academic pressures that drive Yale College.

In many ways, our culture is defined by whom we let into Yale — and what happens when newly minted freshmen come onto campus. Elite institutions of higher education select for a particular type of applicant: someone who avoids risks, works both hard and consistently, and dominates a small range of extracurricular activities — think model UN, a varsity team or student councils.

When they graduate high school, goal-oriented freshmen find themselves without a clear definition of success. Once at Yale, you no longer need to get into college. For students, the result is ambiguity and a bit of anxiety. We wonder, “How do I succeed here?”

As we seek benchmarks for what it means to “win Yale,” we look to what older students have done. We too often pick some socially approved extracurriculars, and make advancement in them our goal. (Right now, founding a start-up is a particularly hip way to succeed.) As we become sophomores and juniors, the goals shift: getting into the right sorority or secret society, to give two typical examples.

How does this environment affect our academics? We hear that being a “section asshole” is bad, and so we strive for a kind of bland academic conformity. Our goal becomes getting A’s, in a way that makes it look like we don’t do all our reading and we party every weekend night. And so, we frequently gravitate toward classes that protect our GPA, without much work — after all, we also need to devote so much of our time to extracurricular advancement. In the free market of shopping period and course evaluations, professors respond in kind, watering down syllabi and standards to meet our new goals.

What is particularly pernicious about Yale’s culture of conformity, both academic and social, is that we don’t notice it. We often cloak our conventionality in shrouds of uniqueness — we find sexy buzzwords to describe what we study or find some niche, within a larger extracurricular category, in which to specialize. But, at our core, Yalies remain risk averse, afraid of working too hard while simultaneously loathing Bs — a measure of failure, of falling short of our goal.

So how does this all relate to grade inflation? The bottom line is that a new grading system will not change Yale’s underlying culture. We will still seek out easier courses, and we will still poorly rate a professor who values intellectualism over academic conformity. Sure, professors can make finer gradations giving out 93s and 94s instead of an A — but grades will still remain high. And to pursue social validation, too many students will continue to prioritize the public success of extracurriculars over the private pleasure of true scholarship.

I wish I could offer a pithy solution to our cultural problems, but I cannot — nor, am I sure that all our culture is a problem. But the bottom line is simple: We need to admit that this culture exists before we can tackle its flaws — flaws including and far exceeding grade inflation.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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