The Failure to Judge… Wisely

In last Sunday’s education supplement to The New York Times, there was a table showing a sampling of U.S. colleges and universities and the distribution of grades “earned” by students, as well as the change from ten years earlier – and in a number of cases, the change from twenty or forty or fifty years ago.  Not surprisingly to me, at virtually every university over 35% of all grades granted were As.  Most were over 40%, and at a number, over half of all grades were As.  This represents a 10% increase, roughly, over the past ten years, but even more important it represents a more than doubling, and in some cases, a tripling of the percentage of As being given from 40-50 years ago.  Are the teachers 2-3 times better?  Are the students?  Let us just say that I have my doubts.

But before anyone goes off and blames the more benighted university professors, let’s look at society as a whole.  Almost a year ago, or perhaps longer, Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, pointed out that almost every Broadway show now gets a standing ovation, when a standing ovation was relatively rare some fifty years ago.  When I was a grade-schooler, there were exactly four college football bowl games on New Year’s eve or New Year’s day, while today there are something like thirty spread over almost four weeks.  Until something like half a century ago, there weren’t any “divisions” in baseball.  The regular season champion of the American League played the regular season champion of the National League.  It’s almost as though we, as a society, can’t accept the judgment of continual success over time.

And have you noticed that every competition for children has almost as many prizes as competitors – or so it seems.  Likewise, there’s tremendous pressure to do away with grades and/or test scores in determining who gets into what college.  And once students are in college, they get to judge their professors on how well they’re being taught – as if any 18-21 year truly has a good and full understanding of what they need to learn [admittedly, some professors don’t, but the students aren’t the ones who should be determining this].  Then we have the global warming debate, where politicians and people with absolutely no knowledge and understanding of the mechanics and physics of climate insist that their views are equal to those of scientists who’ve spent a lifetime studying climate.  And, of course, there are the intelligent design believers and creationists who are using politics to dictate science curricula in schools, based on their beliefs, rather than on what can be proven.

And there’s the economy and business and education, where decisions are made essentially on the basis of short-term profit figures, rather than on the longer-term… and as a result, as we have seen, the economy, business, and education have all suffered greatly.

I could list page after page of similar examples and instances, but these all point out an inherent flaw in current societies, particularly in western European societies, and especially in U.S. society.  As a society, we’re unwilling or unable, or both, to make intelligent decisions based on facts and experience.

Whether it’s because of political pressure, the threat of litigation, the fear of being declared discriminatory, or the honest but misguided belief that fostering self-esteem before establishing ability creates better students, the fact is that we don’t honestly evaluate our students.  We don’t judge them accurately.  Forty or fifty percent do not deserve As, not when less than thirty percent of college graduates can write a complex paragraph in correct English and follow the logic [or lack of it] in a newspaper editorial.

We clearly don’t judge and hold our economic leaders, or our financial industry leaders, to effective standards, not when we pay them tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to implement financial instruments that nearly destroyed our economy.  We judge those running for political office equally poorly, electing them on their professed beliefs rather than on either their willingness to solve problems for the good of the entire country or their willingness to compromise to resolve problems – despite the fact that no political system can survive for long without compromise.

Nor are we, again as a society, particularly accurate in assessing and rewarding artistic accomplishments, or lack of them, when rap music, American Idol and “reality” shows draw far more in financial reward and audiences than do old-fashioned theatre, musical theatre [where you had to be able to compose and sing real melodies], opera, and classical music, and where hyped-up graphic novels are the fastest-growing form of  “print” fiction.   It’s one thing to enjoy entertainment that’s less than excellent in terms of quality;  it’s another to proclaim it excellent, but the ability to differentiate between popularity and technical and professional excellence is, again, a matter of good judgment.

In fact, “judgment” is becoming the new “discrimination.”  Once, to discriminate meant to choose wisely;  now it means to be horribly biased.  The latest evolution in our current “newspeak” appears to be that to judge wisely on the basis of facts is a form of bias and oppression.  It’s fine to surrender judgment to the marketplace, where dollars alone decide, or to politics, where those who are most successful in pandering for votes decide… but to decide based on solid accomplishment – or the lack thereof, as in the case of students who can’t read or write or think or in the case of financiers who lose trillions of dollars – that’s somehow old-fashioned, biased, or unfair.

Whatever happened to judging wisely?

5 thoughts on “The Failure to Judge… Wisely”

  1. Joshua Blonski says:

    That is a sorry state. When I first applied to universities, about a decade ago, the universities that caught my attention the most were the ones who prided themselves on being discriminatory. When I had my interview with my top choice school, they were happy to declare that they only accept the top students, and that their acceptance percentage of total applications was small.

    There’s a risk of turning your students into elitist little snots, but the main reason why they were so vocal about their choices is that they had a reputation to uphold. To be specific, this was predominantly an architecture school, and they had a very high job placement stat. The reason why they were able to keep it so high was because they were very selective regarding which students to accept and train, and therefore they were able to offer high quality employees to the market. Businesses could have a greater sense of trust (or at least a diminished sense of risk) in their hiring decisions because they knew that the school was weeding out the lesser able students right from the beginning.

    In that regard, being discriminatory is a good thing. Some universities are just simply better than others. Why should they lower their standards of acceptance? If they do, they risk lowering their results.

  2. Well said. I never thought I would agree with this opinion, but I’m starting to see things from a different angle. I definitely want to research more on this as it seems quite interesting. One thing that is unclear to me though is how everything is related together.

  3. Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  4. Frank Hamsher says:

    I fully agree with your comments about the increasing failure to judge wisely in today’s society as I would agree that it seems to be endemic problem both in the US here in Australia where I now reside.

    History would suggest that it is a common human failing. There have been many examples of a similar pattern in previous societal patterns.

    One contradistinction that springs immediately to mind is provided in the Biblical story of Solomon who, when it was time for him to take on the role of King felt humble in the face of the task before him and asked God for an understanding, discerning, heart so that he might judge wisely.

    This suggests that a clear-eyed view of our own capabilities and their limitations and the healthy sense of humility that results from such examination — all are necessary components of wise judgment.

    Not a new problem at all, but one certainly not being addressed by a doubling the percentage of A grades or elevating “self-esteem” to idol status – pun intended.

  5. David Sims says:

    Mr. Modesitt, you have me grinning hugely as I agree with you here.

    “Then we have the global warming debate, where politicians and people with absolutely no knowledge and understanding of the mechanics and physics of climate insist that their views are equal to those of scientists who’ve spent a lifetime studying climate.”

    And not only I, but someone else as well.


    In the legislature, five hundred persons of less than average intelligence pass judgment on the most important problems affecting the nation. They form governments which in turn learn to win the approval of their illustrious assembly for every legislative step that may be taken, which means that the policy to be carried out is actually the policy of the five hundred.

    And indeed, generally speaking, the policy bears the stamp of its origin.

    But let us pass over the intellectual qualities of these representatives and ask what is the nature of the task set before them. If we consider the fact that the problems which have to be discussed and solved belong to the most varied and diverse fields we can very well realize how inefficient a governing system must be which entrusts the right of decision to a mass assembly in which only very few possess the knowledge and experience such as would qualify them to deal with the matters that must be settled. The most important economic measures are submitted to a tribunal in which not more than one-tenth of the members have studied the elements of economics. This means that the final authority is vested in men who are utterly devoid of any preparatory training which might make them competent to decide on the question at issue.

    The same holds true of every other problem. It is always a majority of incompetents and ignoramuses who decide on each measure; for the composition of the institution does not vary, while the problems to be dealt with come from the most varied spheres of public life. An intelligent judgment would be possible only if different deputies had the authority to deal with different issues. It is hard to believe that the same people are fitted to decide on transportation questions as well as, let us say, on questions of foreign policy, unless each of them be a universal genius, such as appears only once in a century.

    Here we are scarcely ever dealing with real brains, but only with dilettantes who are as narrow-minded as they are conceited, intellectual second-raters of the worst kind. This is why these honorable gentlemen show such astonishing levity in discussing and deciding on matters that would demand the most painstaking consideration even from great minds. Measures of momentous importance for the future existence of the State are framed and discussed in an atmosphere more suited to the card table. Indeed the latter suggests a much more fitting occupation for these gentlemen than that of deciding the destinies of a people.

    Of course it would be unfair to assume that each member of such a parliament was endowed by nature with such a small sense of responsibility. That is not possible.

    But this system, by forcing the individual to pass judgment on questions for which he is not competent gradually debases his moral character. Nobody will have the courage to say, “Gentlemen, I believe we know nothing about this matter. We don’t know what we are talking about. I personally certainly do not.” Anyhow if such a declaration were made it would not change matters very much, for such outspoken honesty would not be appreciated. The person who made the declaration would be deemed an honorable jackass who shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the game. Those who have a knowledge of human nature know that nobody likes to be considered a fool among his associates, and in certain circles honesty and stupidity are considered to be the same thing.

    —Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, Chapter 3.

    Ruthless old dictator he might have been, but his political perception was usually very acute.

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