Xavier Flory | Higher grades, worse education

The Gadfly | What’s wrong with the College and what Penn can do to fix it

· January 14, 2013, 12:58 am

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Xavier Flory
The Gadfly

Penn students aren’t everything they should be.

“I have to lower my standards every year — half the people in my class can’t even string a coherent essay together,” said a professor of comparative literature who preferred to remain anonymous. “But if I gave the grades students truly deserved, there would be an uproar.”

The comment reflected her frustration that she couldn’t rely on Penn’s curriculum to make her students competent writers and critical thinkers.

Her comment should also provide Penn — in particular the humanities departments — with an impetus to reform not only grading but also the curriculum.

As Penn takes in an ever-more diverse student body, it is harder to assume any particular knowledge in an incoming freshman. For example, I recently chatted with a friend who did not know the capital of Germany. Creating a core curriculum could help with basic deficiencies in people’s knowledge and give the College of Arts and Sciences an identity.

Columbia is renowned for its strong liberal arts program, thanks in large to its strong core curriculum based on the Western Canon.

Penn doesn’t need to copy Columbia. Instead, it could build on its large international presence — 13.9 percent for the class of 2016 — and interdisciplinary strength to create a more international core curriculum. Penn could have required courses in Chinese philosophy, world religions or South American history.

If Penn aims to produce truly worldly students, the language requirement should also be changed. As a language tutor, I’ve seen the results of four semesters of a language and they are poor. Instead of four semesters, the language requirement should be six semesters and study abroad should be more encouraged than it currently is.

Since the Formal Reasoning and Quantitative Analysis sectors target skills rather than any particular knowledge, they could remain sectors without specific required courses. However the classes that fulfill these requirements should be reviewed.

Absurdly, the Formal Reasoning requirement can be fulfilled by a course entitled “Making Sense of Music: Intro.” While music theory can be challenging at a high level, music notation is not comparable to calculus or formal logic.

This is not a unique case. Often these sector requirements do not force students to learn anything useful or to challenge themselves but lead them to take easy classes in fields they are not interested in.

These changes might seem onerous to some, but no matter how the College decides to shape the curriculum, it will benefit the students and provide potential employers with a distinctive idea of a College student. I fear recruiters currently rely more on the qualities it took to get into Penn than on any qualities Penn imparts.

Penn applicants might improve as well. All prospective students would be signing up to take a harder curriculum and would see Penn as more than just another Ivy.

In the long run, as the College turns out consistently high-performing, well-educated and cosmopolitan alumni — something it cannot always claim now — more people would apply and the College might even emerge from Wharton’s shadow.

In the short term, the College can help itself by making the humanities grading system respectable. If the number of A’s in humanities classes were limited, the resulting competition would push students to produce better work.

If professors can decide whether an essay is an A or A-, surely they can also pick out the best five essays and give them A’s and so on. If that is too rigid, they can use a flexible curve where zero to six A’s are awarded at the professor’s discretion.

This way an A would regain some meaning in the humanities, and honors in history would actually be impressive. Changing the grading would also ensure that the English and history majors who do take hard classes and produce excellent work receive the distinction they deserve.

Ultimately, Penn has smart-enough students, accomplished-enough professors and a good-enough reputation that even without reform the College will continue to be at least a financial success.

However, with its resources, the College should provide its students with a more rigorous and consistent base on which to fulfill their potential.

Penn’s reputation should ride not on who it takes, but on who it produces.

Xavier Flory is a College sophomore from Nokesville, Va. His email address is xflory@sas.upenn.edu. Follow him @FloryXavier. “The Gadfly” appears every other Monday.

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