Earlier this year, I attended a production of 42nd Street at Stratford. It was a satisfactory production, though hardly earth-shaking, but the audience gave it standing ovation. And it was at this point that I realized I had to stop worrying about grade inflation.
What I realized, sitting there in the theatre, was that grade inflation isn’t just an academic problem. It’s a social problem. I don’t want to say that North American society as whole has abdicated its power to judge anything as average or mediocre, but I do want to say that a whole lot of segments of society have: we (whoever “we” are, but bear with me) just don’t ever give anything a B anymore, whether it’s a theatre piece (yay! Bravo! Bravissimo! the best!) or a student essay (good work! A!). It isn’t as if we’re deceived either. I mean, the Stratford audience knew that that production was just pretty good; their ovation was half-hearted and it didn’t last long. And academics know that some of our A’s are, shall we say, A’s of lesser quality. But we can’t not stand up for the show, and we can’t say B.
There are good reasons for this, and they are well known. The push toward critical reflection has made us unsure of our standards. The drive to listen, to be changed by others, to consider different points of view — this makes it awfully hard to pinpoint some views as inferior. In short, it’s hard to be nonjudgmental and to judge at the same time. This is not the place to go on about these matters, though, because I want to say something else.
Taking up one of the themes from my last post, I’m thinking that this nonjudgmental quality, this restraint, might provide another reason academics are so uncivil about one another’s work when sheltered by anonymity. Maybe what’s coming out when we blind review each other with comments like “this is a piece of crap” is the suppressed desire to judge something, anything: we can’t give our students the B’s they deserve but we can damn well give our colleagues a D- or an F. “This is a piece of crap,” should therefore be read as saying: “it’s true I don’t apply any real standards in the classroom, but god dammit I still have them, so my field of study continues to have integrity!”
Of course academics have always exaggerated their petty disputes: the narcissism of small differences has characterized the academy for centuries. We’re all used to back-stabbing and we’ve all been back-stabbed. But still, the nastiness of the new style of peer-review might well be a backlash against our own uncertainty.
And so our internecine hostility grows — so much so that we will never come together against today’s real threat: anti-intellectualism. It is anti-intellectualism, rapidly spreading and intensifying in bitterness, that is behind the accountability culture that seeks to drown us in overwork. We all resent it. We all know that it is we who ought to be in a position to judge: we are the thinkers, we are the judges, we are the people who reflect and compare, we invented the goddam standards! — and it drives us crazy that we are being subjected to treatment we should be meting out. But we collaborate: because our ability to reflect has taken us to a point where we are no longer sure of our own standards and therefore in no position to judge others, and, even more, because we can use the accountability culture to fuel our petty grudges against one another and further our struggle for tiny gains in hallucinatory power.