T.S. Eliot and Grade Inflation
T.S. Eliot entered Harvard in 1906. He graduated in 1909, a year early. You might think the Nobel prize winning poet would have had a stellar college record. Well you would be wrong. In his freshman year, he received C’s in German and History, a C- in Government, and B in Greek, though he did flag down an A in English literature, the only half-course he took. His sophomore slump proved even worse. He earned C’s in French, and one of two Greek course and philosophy courses, B’s in the other Greek and philosophy courses, and D in German. In his final year, he improved, earning B’s in a Comparative Literature class and an English class, as well as in a pair of Latin courses, and a couple A’s in two other courses in Comp Lit.
To be honest, my undergraduate record was not all that much better. Soon after I entered Harvard in the fall of 2001, Patrick Healy’s Boston Globe article exposed the “dirty little secret” of Harvard’s rampant grade inflation. He presented some interesting history, noting that professors gave high grades to help students avoid the draft, and rebutting political science professor Harvey Mansfield‘s claim that grade inflation came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when “white professors, imbibing the spirit of affirmative action, stopped giving low or average grades to black students and, to justify or conceal it, stopped giving those grades to white students as well.”
A follow-up Healy article looked at other elite universities who capped their honours in a more appropriate manner. Harvard seemed to budge. For the next four years, I and several of my peers blamed a grade inflation crackdown on our supremely average transcripts, though general laziness was the more likely culprit.
I suppose T.S. Eliot might have been lazy too, and clearly never suffered for his poor grades. I suspect, however, that the curriculum he faced was simply much more demanding. Looking over the transcripts of Alain Locke and Horace Kallen (the subjects of my dissertation) as well as several of their peers who attended Harvard between 1900-1910, I see a ton of language study (which is frequently more intense than your typical lecutre course), mostly full year courses, and often heavier course loads. When looking at Locke’s philosophy assignments in college, I was struck by how similar they appeared to work we could receive today. Of course, philosophical questions are supposed to be timeless, but I wondered why students doing similar work 100 years ago received much lower grades on average?
One reason might be financial. Students like Locke and Kallen, who did not come from the upper crust of American society, often had to apply for scholarships to help fund their stay every year. No “need-blind” admissions” and guaranteed financial aid for them. As a result, you saw more and more students opting to graduate a year early, as both Kallen and Locke did, rather than soak up the Harvard experience, as seems more commonly the case today (I see this much more at NYU, which has worse financial aid and less of a campus life, than I did it Harvard). Indeed, Kallen petitioned to graduate early because he needed to finish college to help support his family. He lived two of his undergraduate years in Boston’s Civic Service House, where he volunteered and helped teach recent Jewish and Italian immigrants. The wealthier students lived on Harvard Yard or similarly close to campus, and had a much easier time getting to and from class.
Still, Kallen somehow managed to graduate magna cum laude, or so he noted several years later, though the award did not appear on his original transcript. Locke’s grades were better, and far better than his classmate Van Wyck Brooks‘s, whose transcript is littered with C’s and D’s. While some people I investigated got really good grades, like future logician Henry Sheffer, most of the transcripts I’ve examined (hardly a random sample, but still interesting) were thoroughly average. Which is probably as it should have been.