Friday, May 14, 2010

More on grade inflation

The topic of grading exemplifies, in my view, one of the inevitable consequences that accompanies loss of liberty in a welfare state. On a number of occasions, Boyes has described the entitlement belief system spawned by the welfare state. This entitlement convention emerges, in large part, from a warping of the understanding of justice. Hayek writes about the empty phrase 'social justice' in Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol 2 - The Mirage of Social Justice:

"The more I tried to give it [social justice] meaning the more it fell apart - the intuitive feeling of indignation which we undeniably experience in particular instances proved incapable of being justified by a general rule such as the conception of justice demands. But to demonstrate that a universally used expression which to many people embodies a quasi-religious belief has no content whatever and serves merely to insinuate that we out to consent to a demand of some particular group, is much more difficult that to show that a conception is wrong." (xi-xii)

Hayek captures the problem - attempting to argue for one value - liberty - which has largely been replaced with a second value - 'social justice' when this second value emerged in the form of a "quasi-religious" process of belief formation and evolution. Boyes and I have both engaged in conversation with those how hold the social justice value with the fervor of a zealot.

So, to the topic and morality of grading - the belief in 'social justice' held by many students, most faculty and administration leads - ironically enough - to immoral pressures - specific groups of students need to be treated differently. Further, the empty concept of social justice seems, to me at least, to inform the justification on the part of students for either requesting "special" consideration in grading or overt cheating. I consider both to be the same.

The Amherst student paper captures this:

While some would like to believe that such grade inflation, essentially officially sanctioned cheating, does not exist at Amherst, it undeniably does. In 1989, the average GPA awarded at Amherst was 3.28. Ten years later, it had risen to 3.41, and by 2006, had settled at 3.48. At an institution that has always prided itself an its scholastic rigor and achievement, grade inflation inspires mediocrity in students who feel they only have to be slightly better than the next person to do well. In addition, it undermines the entire purpose of the College. While students might embrace the higher grades for less effort, professors should give credit where credit is due and not devalue the meaning of an A.

The operative phrase above is officially sanctioned. And grade inflation is officially sanctioned by both the formal and informal institutions that have emerged in education.

Unfortunately grade inflation does not undermine the purpose of the intellectual in higher ed, it furthers the cause of social justice that lays at the heart of elite/interventionist thinking. Lack of general rules of conduct allows for the inculcation of beliefs leading to the empty notion of social justice. As an empty notion, this 'concept' defies assessment, therefore grade inflation as well as other forms of cheating not only are a consequence of this process, but further the ability of the elite/intellectual to inculcate the religion or quasi religion of 'social justice'.

It is not by accident that less grade inflation and more stringent controls and enforcement of cheating takes place in engineering and computer sciences. These disciplines require actual performance to a standard. Unlike 'social justice' the standard in these areas is general rule, can be agreed upon and, more importantly measured. Thus, these disciplines attract those who are supportive of the general rule philosophy or spontaneous order view and thus share the important belief system that is at the heart of informal institutional support for freedom.


  1. Mark Thoma at
    reports on a study showing that indeed, faculty without tenure give higher grades than those with tenure.

  2. The incentives in place for adjunct faculty, lecturers and non tenured faculty are to certainly minimize "waves" and one way to do this is to engage in what a colleague calls an unspoken agreement. The faculty conveys the notion that the class will be "user friendly" and the students respond with positive feedback.