Query: Should We Kick the Curve?

query finalVote Here: Should CLS Grade on a Curve?

Often it takes time and distance to see that the practices and habits of our everyday life are as pernicious as they are obsolete. When it comes to the theme of this article, however, I need only the power of imagination to travel into a not-too-distant future where two wide eyes are looking up at me, bewildered and confused.  “But why would Columbia punish students for helping fellow students achieve?”

Me, grey-templed (yes women can have grey temples too), will lean back in my rocking chair, light a cigar (if I can’t have a rocking chair and a cigar as an age-challenged person even in imaginary retirement, what point is an Ivy League education, anyway?) look down at my grandchild and brawl: “Ah, good question, my little munchkin.”

Okay, forget I sound like a chauvinist senior law firm partner from the Mad Men era.  The question remains. Why is Columbia, supposedly a beacon of light in the darkness of legal education in America, continuing with a grading system that makes the Hunger Games look like a Kumbaya moment?

Yes, I’m speaking of the curve. The curve designed to yield a pre-determined desired distribution of grades among students in a class. The curve that pits students against each other by teaching that if you try and help someone along you may slip behind and tumble downhill (on the wrong side of the curve). The curve that assumes and ensures that there will always be students who succeed and students who fail. The curve that doesn’t account for diversity or differences between cohorts and classes and puts the few who manage to succeed in a lonely place in the sun.

Grading on a curve is insidious in more than one way. We may not feel it, or consciously think of it, but it frames our academic pursuits because grades generally do matter for internships, clerkships, and jobs. As the Muckraker sinks its teeth into the issue of competition vs. collaboration, what better time to explore something so close to home.

At Columbia, the generation, application and diffusion of legal thought and innovation should ideally be a shared responsibility and privilege—each individual according to interests, talents, abilities and specific role. It’s not idealistic to still believe law is intimately connected to justice, and justice relies on such broad participation. Our goal therefore should be to create a system that maximizes students’ opportunities to explore their potential and develop the skills to pursue that end. Is the curve an integral part of such a system? Oliver Wendell David Holmes was on to something in posing “Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.” It is naïve to think the way we grade and incentivize achievement doesn’t affect the way we share our ideas and thoughts.

Just to set the record straight: Yes, I’m Swedish; no, not a socialist. And yet, I truly feel that grading on a curve breeds a culture of competition that stifles the learning environment at Columbia – and elsewhere. Yes, I believe that grading on a curve is sometimes accurately descriptive of human nature, but as often it is deplorably prescriptive – driving students and faculty into mindsets which lead to policies and behaviors that should have run their course a long time ago.

So, why do we have a curve? Forget the argument that competition is the best driver of performance. Harvard Law School – which recently reverted to pass/pass with distinction, thus diminishing the role of grading overall – doesn’t have any problem attracting legal talent; and even the Columbia MBA program doesn’t publish grades anymore. I wish I could blame it on the boogie. But it seems us Columbia students are a big part of the problem.  Before 1994, Columbia had five grades—excellent, very good, good, pass, and unsatisfactory – but Dean Schizer commented in a Columbia Spectator article that, “students were concerned at the time that a system of this sort did not provide enough information,” and that Columbia instituted its current system largely in response to these complaints. Although it isn’t clear Columbia students were advocating grading on a curve per se, the chief concern was level of detail, not modus operandi of the curve itself.

If all else is forgotten besides these questions — What do we want to motivate us to excel, to learn, and to find our place? What has motivated the inspired thinkers and geniuses of our time? – would the students of today still want a curve and are they in fact benefitting from it? If these are not the questions we should be asking, what are they?

We invite our readers to respond to our query in any way fit to publish on the Morningside Muckraker.  Please respond by April 14 at editor@morningsidemuckraker.com

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