Another commencement address no one asked me to give

May 22, 2003
We have a bona-fide tradition going. What you see here is the seventh straight commencement address no one asked me to give. Every year since 1997, I have prepared an address to give at a university commencement. But again, I have been snubbed by academia.


Why do I keep it up? It is my way to counter the banalities that speakers rain down on graduating seniors every year. At a time when they should be fed a healthy dose of reality, they are instead fed spoonfuls of platitudinous esteem building. So here we go, beginning with the obligatory tapping of the microphone.

Tap, tap, tap, is this thing on? Can you hear me in the back? Dr. and Mrs. Pedagogue, esteemed faculty and honored guests, graduating seniors and parents, I'll begin my talk with some reminiscing. When I went to college, it was common for professors to use what was called "grading on the curve." Grades from A to F were given in numbers that approximated a bell-shaped curve. For every A earned, another student got an F. For every B awarded, another student got a D. And most of us got C's.

The practice worked well. Those getting A's had an exceptional grasp of the material. Those getting C's were just average. And the kids who flunked almost always deserved to. The system was Darwinian, but it prepared us for the unmerciful standards against which we would be judged in real life by brutal bosses, fickle customers, unreasonable spouses, and ungrateful children.

In contrast, grading today is anything but rigorous. A recent newspaper article written by a professor at Duke University talks about the marketplace mentality that now pervades higher education. Universities have learned to give students what they want, and they want report cards full of A's. In this atmosphere, the professor points out, it is almost impossible for teachers to grade honestly.

He says the last C he gave was more than two years ago. It was then he realized that if he graded students honestly, they would quit enrolling in his classes. College administrators interpret declining enrollment as a sign that a professor is a lousy instructor, and that isn't good for an academic career.

At Duke, certainly not a leader in grade inflation, A's have surpassed B's to become the most common grade. C's now constitute less than 10 percent of all grades. At Harvard and Columbia, roughly half of all grades are A's. At the University of Illinois, more than 40 percent of all grades are A's, which are awarded at triple the rate of C's.

Parents and students pay a lot for enrollment in a college. So, according to the professor, he is expected to satisfy their desire for positive feedback in return for the money they spend. That means he doesn't give C's anymore, and he feels someday he may be saying the same for B's.

All this transpires despite the fact that today's students frequently skip classes and don't participate when they happen to show up, according to the professor. In plain talk, students goof off a lot and aren't interested in learning. He points out that in this atmosphere, if instructors can't grade honestly, universities won't turn out graduates that are truly educated.

Finally, I will leave you with one hopeful sign. Increasingly, college students are discovering that if they wear their baseball caps backwards, the visors protect their eyes from the sun. So they seem capable of learning something.

Thank you for your kind attention, and good evening. Thunderous applause builds to pandemonium until Dr. Pedagogue steps to the podium to announce: "Mr. Khol has left the auditorium."

-- Ronald Khol, Editor

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