There are two things that I won’t do in this article. I won’t defend—actually, I won’t even comment on—Harvard’s grade inflation “policy”. I don’t know the details, and I don’t particularly care to. And I certainly won’t speculate about what it’s like to go to another school, or what the rigor of coursework or harshness of grading is at an institution I have not attended, because, as I have not attended that institution, I have absolutely nothing to contribute on that front (an opinion that, judging from comments on recent articles on grade inflation at Harvard, I may be in the minority in holding).
So, I’ll start off with a confession: I have no idea if my professors have inflated my grades. I’m not even quite sure how that could be assessed, especially when the majority of my classes have been advanced concentration seminars with under ten, and sometimes under five, students. And I was a bit surprised when, reading the articles in The Crimson and The Atlantic yesterday, I realized that I’m not itching to know if I’ve “earned” every A I’ve received, and that it actually doesn’t matter to me at all. I know that my GPA will matter more than I’d probably like to acknowledge in my job search and the graduate school and fellowship application process. I’m also in the fortunate position of recognizing that the postgraduate path I’ll be happiest following will be one that will not rely so rigidly on arbitrary markers like grades, but on the other skills I can bring to the table, so I’m admittedly not stressing out over the smattering of letters on my transcript.
That said, another confession: I don’t know what it’s like to get an “easy A” here. I’ve worked for every A I’ve gotten, I’ve also worked for every B I’ve gotten, and I have personally never felt like I “got away with” a grade I hadn’t earned. Schedules fluctuate, and I’m as guilty as anyone else of turning in an occasional subpar effort because of extracurricular overcommitment, conflicting deadlines, or other extenuating circumstances. But for the most part, I like to think—as optimistic an assumption as it may be—that Harvard students are just not usually comfortable turning in lousy, half-assed work. And even if they are, and even if they do so from time to time, I’ve found that if you talk to them about their courses and what they’ve gotten out of them, both in terms of practical knowledge and in terms of how their thinking, research, or analytical skills have been impacted, you’ll often see that they can surprise you, and themselves, with just how much they’ve learned, and how much it comes to matter later on.
Which brings me to a final confession: I’ve learned a heck of a lot in my three-and-a-half years here. I’ve learned in the classroom; I’ve learned out of the classroom. I’ve learned in classes that I’ve gotten As in; I’ve learned in classes that I’ve gotten Cs in; and I suspect I’ve actually learned the most in classes I’ve taken pass/fail or SAT/UNSAT (but that’s a conversation for another day). And as long as, when push comes to shove, I can look at my transcript, bypass the letter mark, go straight to the course title, and tell you concretely what I learned from that class and how it has impacted me, I think I’m doing just fine.
Because what does a grade tell you? Does it tell you how smart I am? Does it tell you how much work I put into a class? Does it explain the depth of my understanding of the material, or the amount of research I conducted, or the creative and analytical energy I invested in the papers and exams and projects I produced? Does it truly allow you to compare me to any other student, at my own institution or from another? Is it an indicator of my worth as a student or as (gulp) a person? Does it reveal whether or not I deserve to go here?
Grades are arbitrary, they’re subjective, they’re nearly impossible to standardize, and in the grand scheme of things, they’re meaningless. And in that case, if Harvard’s grade inflation, whatever it may be, has meant that I’ve spent any less time than I otherwise would have crying or stressing out or doubting myself and my worth because it’s allowed me to feel some small sense of achievement after pouring hours of effort into coursework that has more often than not challenged me to face and work through setback after setback in my thinking… heck, if that’s what it’s meant, I’m pretty darn grateful for that. I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment, but for as long as I can remember, and especially when I came to college, my parents have been encouraging me to focus on learning and really, honestly not care about my grades. That’s something it’s taken me the better part of four years to embrace, but I’m coming around to it. And if getting an A or an A- is what it has taken to show me that my learning is being reflected and recognized in my work, and if that A or A- has helped me in the process of dissociating my personal worth and that of my intellect from a mark on my transcript, then yeah, I’ll go so far as to say thank you for that, Harvard. I can’t say I defend it, or that I think I’m describing a universal experience, or that I even consider whatever Harvard graders are doing to be “right”. I certainly don’t feel qualified to comment on it from any viewpoint other than my own. And within those parameters, all I’m actually saying is that in my individual, isolated, introspective understanding of whatever grade inflation may-or-may-not have occurred on my own transcript, I haven’t felt cheated by this system, I’ve only felt that I’ve grown from it.