In the first collegiate class I taught on my own, freshman writing at a big state school in the fall of 2010, my students averaged in the C range at the beginning of the semester and in the B range by the end. I held them to the same standards that my own high school teachers and college professors had set for me: They had to write with substantive content, logical argument, and correct grammar. Most of them fell short of that bar, both when the class commenced and when it concluded.
But through the rigor of correction and repetition, many of them were closer to proficient, as thinkers and as writers, after our 14 weeks together than they had been before.
By the time I taught my last collegiate course, academic writing at a Catholic college in the fall of 2022, the days of “no late assignments, no exceptions” and C averages that I had taken for granted a mere decade before felt like relics of another century.
In part, universities’ lowered grading standards were about the (wholly unnecessary) measures taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic: Sudden implementation of universal pass/fail and online coursework in the spring of 2020 led to an inevitable decline in both academic rigor and collegiate mores that many, including me, assumed would be temporary.
Tragically, we assumed wrong.
By 2020, what remained of academic rigor on college campuses was hanging by a thread , suffered to persist mostly due to inertia. In disrupting the status quo, the pandemic merely gave explicit voice to the broad denigration of academic excellence that was already implicit within the so-called higher education sector.
The energy on college campuses in the 2010s was centered on two worthy, if nonacademic, causes: First, the plight of disproportionately minority first-generation college students , who often suffered from a dearth of both academic and cultural capital , and second, the mental health crisis that affected ever greater numbers of college students, which was often linked to both academic pressure and social media and seemed particularly detrimental to young women.
Each of these problems deserves attention and could perhaps be effectively addressed by professors and administrators prepared to: (1) Offer first-generation students counsel about the acquisition of required academic skills and institute programs for the development of those skills, and (2) collectively resist the temptation of grade inflation and thereby reduce the psychic impact of less than perfect grades on high-performing, anxious youths.
These measures are supposed to eliminate educational achievement gaps between socioeconomic and racial groups of students and curb anxiety among all students. Instead, they deprive the very students who need it most the opportunities to learn, the ostensible raison d’etre for higher education, while simultaneously depriving these educational institutions themselves of various important fields of knowledge.
Eliminating classics departments from colleges, for example, may reduce the Western-centrism that the Left claims is exclusionary to students and scholars of color. But it does so by ensuring that fewer students overall, and by extension fewer students of color, learn foundational ancient ideas, languages, and history.
Likewise, eliminating high-stakes tests , both from admissions processes and from collegiate course work , may increase the admissions rate and appear to increase the academic performance of socioeconomically disadvantaged, disproportionately minority students. But it does so by leaving those very students comparatively underprepared to compete for and in desirable jobs.
Allowing students endless grace on assignment content and due dates may reduce some students’ anxiety. But it does so by fostering a profound fragility that renders them unfit for a harsh world with professional and personal realities and deadlines that can’t be massaged through emails to well-meaning teaching assistants.
The way to help students who are academically behind or prone to anxiety is to help them help themselves. Like the body grows strong through exercise, the mind grows strong by striving toward rigorous academic standards and thereby achieving them, and the spirit grows strong by persisting through anxiety and thereby defanging it.
Academic devolution and emotional coddling, by contrast, negatively affect all students — especially those who can least afford it.