Self-Esteem High, Learning Not So Much

Here’s a statistic that should make every college teacher
cringe.  From 1976 to 2010, the rate of high school student
s graduating with an “A” gradepoint average doubled
They didn’t increase their work load, and their test scores didn’t rise correspondingly,
but their teachers gave them the highest grade possible again and again.

The impact of grade inflation isn’t more learning and more
effort.  Instead, it’s higher self-evaluation.  That’s the conclusion
of psychologist Jean Twenge, who with
various collaborators over the years has studied the attitudes and outlooks of
Generation Y and concluded that young people are suffering from a narcissism
epidemic.  Her findings are summarized in an article in this month’s issue
of Teaching of Psychology.
Examining data from the American
Freshman Survey
over several decade’s time, Twenge finds that

entering college students are
increasingly likely to believe that they are above average in attributes such
as academic ability, writing ability, intellectual self-confidence, and drive
to achieve.

Objective measures of their abilities are pretty much flat,
but their estimation of those abilities keeps going up.  In 1965, about 30
percent of respondents stated that they are “above average” in writing, while
recent numbers have reached nearly 50 percent (even though remediation course
work for entering students keeps going up).  From 1976 to 2000, twice as
many seniors claimed that they will earn a graduate degree, even though the
number of individuals who did so held steady at nine percent.  Their drive
to achieve certainly isn’t reflected in the amount of homework they complete,
which has actually dropped significantly since the 1960s.  By 2006, too,
two-thirds of respondents stated
when they enter the workplace they will perform among the top 20 percent of
their colleagues.

What this means for college teachers is that if they don’t
go along with the grade inflation, they end up shocking their first-year
students.  The freshmen have been told repeatedly that they are superior,
so when the college teacher gives them a middling grade, they don’t
understand.  The mismatch of expectation and talent has been reinforced up
until they got that first paper in freshman comp with red markings all over it,
and it doesn’t make sense. 

The false self-assessment adds a whole new element to
freshman instruction.  Teachers not only have to give students an honest
appraisal, but they have to overcome the self-esteem, the expectations, the
unreality of their students as well.  Or, of course, they could just go
with the flow and save themselves the trouble of coping with upset


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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