JR'S Free Thought Pages
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On self esteem and grade inflation in the education system


           Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare. - Spinoza

The article below that appeared in this morning’s Vancouver Sun outlines quite adequately the dual problems of grade inflation and the misguided self-esteem movement that currently plagues our education systems from Kindergarten through University. Assuming my memory is correct, it started sometime in the early 1980’s, quite innocuously at first, but got progressively worse. Our Math Department at South Delta Senior Secondary School fought these Mickey Mouse developments tooth and nail for years.


I can remember in the early Seventies my Math Department colleagues and I prided ourselves on our very high standards particularly in our Math 11 and 12 courses, regularly failing 30% or more in our Math 11 classes in those days. When I retired in 1999, 5% was considered too high for a failure rate by deluded administrators. We also offered an Honors Math 12 class back then by double blocking exceptional students, a course I taught for several years, as well as the Advanced Placement Calculus course that came later. To earn an “A” in any of our courses a student had to demonstrate excellence, independent of effort. Effort is and still ought to be considered a subjective and separate measure. On the report cards of that time is was deemed as such (after all, who knows how students spent their time at home?) and students were granted G, N or U for their work ethic. Effort is commendable but can’t be confused with what the student actually scores on examinations. I’ve always admired and commended kids who worked hard but if you scored 45%, sorry, no cigar! Toward the end of my 30 year career I was getting so tired of the feeble pleas of students to give them an “A” because they “tried hard” or had 84% (couldn’t you bump this up to 86?) After years of tiring of these pitiful requests my response often became glib: “Cry me a river” or “You’re obviously confusing me with….” The article below demonstrates how this trend has invaded the Universities. Isn’t it depressing enough that you can now get a University graduate degree in something as banal and mind-numbing as “Business Administration” or “Marketing”?


Is it surprising to anyone that there are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth or fifth grade level? Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate and their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image based delusionary existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book. When people do read it’s usually one of the inane best selling self-help books like The Secret by “Help Me Rhoda” Byrne. In this quasi-religious muddle of New Age gobbledygook, home spun common sense and Eastern Mysticism we are told that all we have to do is visualize what we want, believe in ourselves and summon those hidden inner resources, whether divine or innate, that force the world into a procrustean bed of our dreams and desires. Reality is not an impediment to our ability to succeed according to Byrne. We can simply think ourselves to success, thus creating our own mind dependent realities. By success, of course Byrne means accumulating boatloads of money and filling your bloated homes with useless “stuff”.


Most people today think with a bumper sticker mentality. The core values of our liberal free thinking open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions and express oneself freely, to be skeptical of dubious claims and to be able to assess the cogency of an argument, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, yield to evidence, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying. We are instead lapsing into a medieval conservatism – a resignation to the status quo of privilege and power. Both McCain and Obama used hundreds of millions of corporate donations and campaign funds from the wealthy to appeal to and manipulate this illiteracy and irrationalism to their advantage, but these forces will prove to be their most deadly nemesis once they collide with the alarming reality that awaits us.


Voltaire was the most famous man of the 18th century. Today the most famous “person” is Homer Simpson.

November 12, 2008


Pass me, I tried hard, students say

Study shines a light on university students' sense of academic entitlement in the classroom


Shannon Proudfoot

Canwest News Service

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Most university students believe that if they're "trying hard," a professor should reconsider their grade.

One-third say that if they attend most of the classes for a course, they deserve at least a B, while almost one-quarter "think poorly" of professors who don't reply to e-mails the same day they're sent.

Those are among the revelations in a newly published study examining students' sense of academic entitlement, or the mentality that enrolling in post-secondary education is akin to shopping in a store where the customer is always right.

The paper describes academic entitlement as "expectations of high marks for modest effort and demanding attitudes toward teachers."

It's a hot topic -- and source of much frustration -- among instructors, says author Ellen Greenberger, a research professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California-Irvine.

"I would have trembled with fear before I suggested to some of my revered teachers that I wanted them to give me a higher grade," she says, chuckling about how attitudes have changed.

Greenberger's study reveals that students who are academically entitled are more likely to engage in academic cheating, exploit others, shirk hard work and display "narcissistic orientation."

She found virtually no connection between self-entitled attitudes and grades, meaning it's not just weak students trying to wheedle better marks out of their profs, and those who do so aren't reaping the benefits on their transcripts.

"It certainly suggests that these attitudes and behaviours aren't producing the desired effect," she says. "It's just making teachers crazy."

Greenberger was surprised that parenting appears to have little influence in shaping self-entitled students, with one key exception: students who say their parents often compare their achievements to siblings, cousins or friends are more likely to engage in these behaviours.

It may be that young people who are pushed to keep up with the Joneses develop a shaky sense of self-esteem and use academic entitlement as a "coping strategy" to get good grades by any means necessary, she says.

The study, which surveyed two groups of approximately 400 undergraduates aged 18 to 25, is published in the November issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Technology may encourage some of this demanding student behavior because e-mail is quick, provides easy access to professors and opens the door to a less formal and respectful tone, Greenberger says.

"In-person communication obliges you to look the person in the eye as you're about to say, 'You really ought to give me a B because I came to most of the classes.'" she says. "Try saying that face-to-face."

However, professors may well be guilty of the same impertinence in e-mails to their students, she says.

Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University who has witnessed this behavior in his own students, blames it largely on the self-esteem movement that ties evaluation of work with personal judgment.

"If I give a student a B or a B-minus or a C -- God forbid -- I have to explain to them because they haven't learned it in elementary school that I'm not evaluating their personality and I'm not even evaluating work they intended to do; I'm evaluating the work they submitted and it's not personal," he says.

He sees the roots of this in own children's elementary school, where spelling is sometimes not corrected for fear of squelching students' creativity and walls are adorned with grammatically incorrect work.

The "consumer revolution" has also convinced some students that universities and professors are service providers, Troy says. Both he and Greenberger believe anonymous student course evaluations have fuelled this and left some professors capitulating to student pressure because evaluations can be tied to tenure and advancement.

"It's kind of like, 'Okay, you've done your grading of my work, now I'm going to grade you,'" Gil says. "And it's often grading you as a performer."


A University of California-Irvine study, which examined post-secondary students' sense of academic entitlement, asked approximately 400 undergraduates aged 18 to 25 whether they agreed with the following statements:

- If I have explained to my professor that I am trying hard, I think he/she should give me some consideration with respect to my course grade -- 66.2 per cent agree.

- If I have completed most of the reading for a class, I deserve a B in that course -- 40.7 per cent agree.

- If I have attended most of the classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B -- 34.1 per cent agree.

- Teachers often give me lower grades than I deserve on paper assignments -- 31.5 per cent agree.

- Professors who won't let me take my exams at another time because of my personal plans (e.g. a vacation) are too strict -- 29.9 per cent agree.

- A professor should be willing to lend me his/her course notes if I ask for them -- 24.8 per cent agree.

- I would think poorly of a professor who didn't respond the same day to an e-mail I sent -- 23.5 per cent agree.

- Professors have no right to be annoyed with me if I tend to come late to class or tend to leave early -- 16.8 per cent agree.

- A professor should not be annoyed with me if I receive an important call during class -- 16.5 per cent agree.

- A professor should be willing to meet with me at a time that works best for me, even if inconvenient for the professor -- 11.2 per cent agree.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008



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