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Grade Inequality, Failures, and Presidential Candidates

As President Obama pivots to the issue of income inequality, Harvard has already advanced fairly far in eliminating grade inequality. At a faculty meeting earlier this month, Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield elicited an admission from the dean of undergraduate education that the most common grade at Harvard now is an “A” (the term “Harvard fail” refers these days to a grade somewhere in the “B” range).

Last week, Harvard Magazine posted a sophisticated defense of the college’s grading system by Michael Zuckerman, a recent graduate whose remarkable commencement address in 2010 was a reflection on adversity and failure. Zuckerman noted the concerns that Harvard’s easy grading system was “failing to prepare its students to weather failure”–one of the inevitable post-graduate experiences. But he downplayed the significance of the inflated grades, since he found that Harvard provided many extracurricular ways to learn about failure. He cited a small-group class he had taken on community organizing:

[The tutorial] was built entirely around controlled failure: each of the 10 students had to conceive, plan, and execute a 10-week organizing project around a salient social-justice issue. We were all highly optimistic at the outset—I launched, for example, a community-service program within a 2009 Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, hoping to spur a “service politics” movement—and, needless to say, we all came up short. It is, after all, nearly impossible to transform society in 10 weeks.

It is an example of failure teaching a good lesson. Perhaps there is a broader one: even four years may not be enough to fundamentally transform society, especially if you don’t learn the lessons of failure along the way. It may not even be enough time to implement your own signature legislation (notwithstanding your assurance to a joint session of Congress four years ago). As Zuckerman’s commencement address indicated, it can be a double loss if one not only suffers failure but fails to learn the lesson failure might have taught.

One wonders if President Obama ever took a class in community organizing (or the Middle East peace process), and what other classes he took, who taught them, what grades he received, etc.–back in the days when a transcript was a transcript. Unfortunately, the protective press did not make an issue of the non-disclosure when he first ran for president. The only reason we know about John Kerry’s college grades is he found himself during his own presidential campaign in a situation that can only be fully appreciated by those who know Shalom Aleichem’s great story, “The Yom Kippur Scandal.”

Harvard’s grading system seems unlikely to change soon; indeed, Princeton’s grading system seems to be moving in Harvard’s direction. But the good news is that, within a couple of decades, presidential candidates may no longer have to campaign under the constant fear that someone might puncture their pretensions by disclosing their college transcripts, since the transcripts by then will likely show all of them to have been A students. The candidates of the future will thus be able to focus fully on the issues of the day, such as hope, change, and their opponent’s record as a high school bully.


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