Yesterday, we had our third student drop our class Seeing Nature: How Aristotle and Darwin Understood Nature and Human Society because the student was on track to get a B in the class.  Let that soak in for a minute – dropping a class because they were going to get a B.  This has become routine.

In this class, we ask students to write two paragraphs about the readings on Monday, two paragraphs about the readings on Wednesday, and a six paragraph synthesis essay about a topic they choose from among a set of possible questions on Friday.  We began with 35 students the first day, and 13 found this too much to handle.  As a consequence, we were down to 22 last week.  That means 13% (3/22) of our class dropped because their grade might be a B.

This being the last week that students could drop classes without any penalty on their transcripts, the B-droppers kicked into gear.

The premise of this class is to examine how societal attitudes and presumptions influence the kinds of questions scientists ask and the kinds of answers to those questions they are willing and able to develop. Our goal for the class is to exercise the students’ critical thinking skills in analysis and argument.  We have preached to them that there are no right answers in this class – only questions.  Each class is a searching exploration for meaning in the writings of these two towering scientists on subjects from what is knowledge, to why we mate, to race, to divinity, to humankind’s place in the universe.

The core of students left in the class are fantastic!  They search, they probe and they struggle mightily with each issue.

However, a very large group of students at this elite Ivy League institution really do not care one bit about their education.  Their choice of classes to take are based solely on what classes are the least work and a sure A.  There was always a large population of students in the first category searching for what they can take that won’t be a lot of work.

However, students dropping classes because they are going to get a grade less than an A only started about 5 years ago.  I vividly remember the first student who did it in a class I was teaching.  It was in the freshman biology class I teach, and she said she had to drop the class because her grade of B would destroy her chances of getting into Medical School.  I was dumbfounded.  I also thought this student was just so anomalous that I had a whacky story now to tell my colleagues.  But now dropping a class because they’re not going to get an A is now routine, and not just pre-meds worrying about admissions to medical school.

Every educational reform in K-12 schools in the past 30 years has pushed the system ever farther into simply memorizing facts to take on standardized tests.  The SAT and ACT tests now simply measure how many preparatory classes a person has taken, and not intellectual ability.  Severe grade inflation at Dartmouth (where over 50% of classes have median grades of A or A-) has made constructive and honest feedback to students about their work and intellectual advancement worthless.

Grade-grubbers have always existed, but when students are dropping classes because they’re going to get a B, something serious is wrong with our educational system.