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Monday, March 22, 2010

Grade Inflation in Societal Context

What do all of the following have in common?

1. Vanity sizing of women’s clothing
2. Photoshop
3. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court
4. McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as V-P running mate
5. Basketball coach fired after team wins by score of 100 to 0
6. Breast augmentation

If you don’t see the common thread, some facts about each of these phenomena might help.

VANITY SIZING- In recent years, many manufacturers of women’s clothing have altered the size labels in clothing as the average weight and size of women have increased. For example, if a woman who has gained weight used to wear a size 8 dress, she could now buy a dress with a size 8 label, even though she would actually need a size 10 by the old standards. Women can now operate with the misperception that they are still the same size as they were when they weighed less. The dress manufacturers benefit because women who have gained weight are more likely to buy dresses if the purchases are of the same size as when they were thinner. In this way, women can maintain their self-esteem through delusion.

PHOTOSHOP- This computer program is a digital photograph editor that can be used to improve the looks of a photo or change a photograph for the purposes of propaganda. For example, one could put a person’s face on another’s body, making it appear that a hostage is still alive when he really is not. One could also take a photo of group of 50 soldiers and make it appear like an army of thousands. Today, when we see a photo on the internet or on TV, it is wise to question its authenticity.

HARRIET MIERS- When a president nominates a person for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the country is accustomed to candidates who belong among the top nine jurists in the country. We expect each nominee to have graduated at, or near, the top of his/her class from one of the very best law schools, and to have established a superior career as a lawyer, judge, and/or legal scholar. Most of us are not knowledgeable enough to be able to evaluate these candidates by ourselves, so we place some trust in the president and the congress to do it for us. I am not qualified to evaluate Harriet Miers’ (nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005) career accomplishments, but I looked up the law school origins of recent & current supreme court justices and found the following:


Alito----- Yale (1)
Sotomayor----- Yale (1)
Thomas----- Yale (1)
Breyer----- Harvard (2)
Roberts----- Harvard (2)
Scalia----- Harvard (2)
Souter----- Harvard (2)
O’Connor----- Stanford (3)
Rehnquist----- Stanford (3)
Ginsberg----- Columbia (4)
Stevens----- Northwestern (10)
Miers----- Southern Methodist (49)

I certainly can’t argue that a 1970 graduate from Southern Methodist’s Law School would be less adequate as a Supreme Court Justice than graduates from the top 10 law schools (2009 U.S. News and World Report rankings). I do know, however, that the admissions requirements for the highest-rated law schools are much more competitive in terms of intellect, prior accomplishments, college grades, and LSAT scores. From the above chart it is obvious that President Bush side-stepped one of the common criteria for nominees. I’m quite sure that relatively few Americans were aware of this, while congressmen of both major parties immediately recognized this as a critical issue and she was quickly withdrawn from consideration. The perception that Bush tried to convey is that Harriet Miers was every bit as qualified as the sitting justices for a seat on the Supreme Court.

SARAH PALIN- When presidential candidate Sen. John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate, many McCain loyalists trusted that he thoroughly vetted her, that she was fully qualified to become president in case McCain, who would have been the oldest person to ever become U.S. president, might not survive his first term. Sarah Palin was in her first term as governor of Alaska, having served for 20 months at the time of her nomination. Prior to that, her elected experience included president of the Wasilla PTA, Wasilla City Council member, 2 terms as Wasilla (population: 7,000) Mayor (1996 to 2002), and Alaska (population: 686,000) Governor from 12/06 to 8/08 when McCain named her as his running mate. When she was elected governor, a total of 238,307 votes were cast, and she received only 48% of them. Her college education included attendance at Hawaii Pacific University (1982), North Idaho College (1983), University of Idaho (1984 & 1985), and Matanuska-Susitna College (1985), before she finally obtained her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from the University of Idaho in 1986.

The image that the McCain campaign tried to convey was that Sarah Palin was a fully-qualified executive by virtue of her experiences as mayor and governor, and that she was also a down-to-earth person, a “soccer mom”, who understood from first-hand experience, the real-life problems that most people have in their lives. Of course, they did not focus on her very limited executive experience in terms of both number of years and size of the populations she governed. Nor did they focus on her nomadic college experience at undistinguished colleges and universities. Many voters had little awareness of how limited Sarah Palin was as a vice-presidential candidate, partly because they trusted that Sen. McCain would not nominate a person who was unqualified.

BASKETBALL COACH- Actually, this story is not unique. Similar incidents have been recently reported in the media, but this one is a good example. On 1/13/09, Covenant School defeated Dallas Academy in girls’ basketball by a score of 100-0. Dallas Academy had not won a single game in the previous 4 years. The coach of Covenant School said that he would not apologize for his team’s overwhelming victory, and he was soon fired. The Covenant School administration stated that “It is shameful and an embarrassment that this happened” and that “This clearly does not reflect a Christ-like and honorable approach to competition.” They went on to ask the league director to record the game as a forfeit. For an account of this story, see:

Of course, the Covenant School coach had prepared his players to play well and competitively, and had recruited strong players to this private school. When he inserted his subs, they continued to run-up the score because every competitive player wants to do her best and the opponent was weak. The coach did not want to tell any of his players to play poorly or to stop trying as this would be contrary to what coaches generally try to instill in their players.

What about the coach and the school administration of the losing team? Why were they so uncompetitive that they did not win a single game in 4 years? Did the administration fail to emphasize girls’ basketball sufficiently to avoid such lopsided losses? Should the administration have entered the team in a less competitive league? Did the coach prepare the girls effectively? Why weren’t the administrators and the coach at Dallas Academy called to task for leading their lambs to slaughter? Surely they knew that the Covenant School team was very good. In fact, after the drubbing and the associated news stories, the Dallas Academy administration withdrew its team from the league.

More critically, what has happened in this country that a coach who succeeded in developing an excellent team is castigated for poor sportsmanship and an unchristian attitude while a coach whose team was unprepared to compete was not even criticized? Further, what has happened to our concept of fairness which used to mean that everybody plays by the same rules? Today, fairness involves a sliding scale of rules depending on the needs of each participant. Therefore, if a sports opponent is weak, the stronger one is supposed to ease-up so as not to inflict shame or embarrassment, and to demonstrate good sportsmanship and compassion. It is in the same zeitgeist that our grading of students has softened so that the weaker ones can still get an “A”, and we often give a “C” for poor performance because an “F” would seem like cruel and unusual punishment.

BREAST AUGMENTATION- Today, most women who can afford the surgery can obtain a shape that rarely occurs in nature. Both genders pay attention to women’s artificially enhanced appearance, and are impressed by cosmetically enhanced bodies just as though they were obtained the old-fashioned way: genetics, proper diet, and exercise. Now, large numbers of women seek to enhance their figures through breast augmentation and other cosmetic surgeries. Even teenage girls are getting parental permission for these procedures. We have been experiencing a shift in what our society considers attractive and the lengths to which people will go to achieve some idealized image of beauty. In effect we have seen perceptual inflation in physical appearance standards: what used to be considered beautiful has become ordinary, and the new concept of beauty is widely attained through artificial means: cosmetic surgery.

So What Do These Six Things Have in Common?

They are all devices that have been used to alter people’s perceptions of reality. The vanity sizing of women’s clothing and cosmetic surgeries such as breast augmentation, serve to change both the way women view themselves and the way others view women. The Photoshop program is used to have viewers of pictures see something other than true and accurate images. The nominations of Miers and Palin by powerful figures in our society tells the public that these two nominees are good, even though the facts indicate that they were actually precedent-lowering standards. Even though neither nominee succeeded, they might contribute to a disinhibitory effect in which we become accustomed to the serious consideration of less adequate nominees in the future. Finally, in the 100-0 basketball scenario, we see the very successful winning coach get fired and the very unsuccessful losing coach get pity. The perception of winning and losing has been changed in our society by what appear to me to be religious values taken literally and to the extreme. In the past, it would have been more likely that the losing coach would have been fired while the winning coach would have been counseled by his boss on compassion and sportsmanship.

Grade Inflation As Altered Perception

Grade inflation is another example of this kind of perceptual shift. The synergy within our society works two ways. First, in a society in which the manipulation of people’s perceptions is commonplace, it becomes easy to embrace one more misperception: grading that is unrelated to actual performance. And second, with lowering standards permeating all levels of education, we will have fewer citizens who have the critical thinking skills and knowledge of history, government, geography, math, and science to be able to recognize substandard nominees for high office, the possibility that news photographs might have been manipulated, or that new standards of beauty and fairness might be problematic.

In my next post, I will demonstrate how easy it is to inflate students’ grades.

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