B Is For Bourdieu; Or, Why A Selective School Doesn’t Grade Like A Community College

July 16, 2011, 3:21 pm

In our endless quest for intellectual excellence, we at Tenured Radical ask today:  ”Why do college teachers give so many B’s?”  This strikes us as a dramatically more novel and interesting question than the ongoing obsession about why college teachers give so many A’s. We were pushed to think about this after reading an article in The Deseret News, which notified us of the unsurprising fact that 43% of college grades are in the range of A, and fewer than 10% of grades are C or below.  So why are critics so concerned about A’s when, in fact, B seems to be the giveaway grade, coming in at somewhere over 47% of all grades given?

Any of us who teach at any level nowadays know that C, D, and F are now the equivalent of “fail, fail minus, and geddaf*ckouddahere.”  To lean sloppily on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, students at selective schools who receive these grades are being put on notice that they know so very little that they are on the brink of being ejected from a social space that guarantees their post-graduation admissability to the haute  bourgeoisie.  But what would be wrong with ejecting them? you ask.

I would argue that the unsurprising answer to this question is that the continuing prestige of these institutions is not necessarily predicated on the quality of the education available there, but on having as many of their graduates as possible identified with dominant social, economic and political institutions.

Grades, in other words, have little to do with education, or with preparing students for the actual rough and tumble world of professional work (even though teaching and learning actually do.)  Longtime Radical Readers will recall that back in 2007 I published a post in which I asked the question: “What If Everyone Got An A?”  I suggested that we give up a multi-tiered grading system in favor of pass- fail (which is self-evident); or “1,2,3″ which would have been the equivalent of “outstanding, average, get off your a$$.”  In this piece I noted some of the pernicious effects of grading that might actually impede the intellectual work of a university:

I wonder why we who are college professors are so invested in a grading system that doesn’t benefit us; that stresses our students out; that none of us really agree on (my A is different from Professor B’s A, which is different from Professor C’s A); in which you can’t give lower than a B without the student dropping the course; and that causes students to compete for the grade rather than enjoy the work they are doing?

As it turns out, I was wrong to assume that the anxiety about grading had anything to do with fears about the dumbification of undergraduate life. The answer to the question “Why do we grade?”if you follow the link in the Deseret News story back to the abstract of a new study in the Teacher’s College Record authored by Stuart Rojstaczer & Christopher Healy is twofold, and both reasons lead back to some modification of Bourdieu’s original thesis about the tight relationship between education and class. The point of grades is to screen our students for future employers and graduate schools; and it is an industrial device to keep students who do not enter selective institutions with sufficient cultural capital working to a level that reflects the prestige of the university.   “It is likely,” the authors of the study conclude, “that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.”


As Rojstaczer and Healy point out, their research also shows that the more selective the school, the higher the grades.  The Deseret News‘s own research demonstrated that “public commuter universities like the University of Utah or Utah Valley University ranked the lowest, at 39 percent, while private, nonprofit universities like BYU averaged 48.2 percent.” Which just goes to show that prestige is not the entire story, since Ivy League schools are weighing in a few percentage points lower than that.

But you have to wonder:  when the majority of grades given are B’s, why are we talking about A’s?  Princeton’s crackdown on A’s several years ago, and rumors that the Tigers were limiting the number of A’s to 35% of all grades given, did not mention the likely outcome of such an effort:  without a fundamental rethinking of a system in which only A and B matter, grades would not redistribute downwards in any even manner.  In other words, restricting A’s would not cause B’s to become C’s, but cause the category of B to expand.

The problem is not why so many students get A’s, but that over time, producing people who look like “quality students” on paper has been part of how prestige schools maintain their status, and the status of their graduates, in a world that is dramatically more competitive.

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