H0: Dope smoking, rock'nroll listenin' late Boomers were just smarter

July 18, 2011

The graph is from an analysis by Stuart Rojstaczer & Christopher Healy which looks at college/university level grades at 200 US institutions of higher education (via Catherine Rampel, via via Mike the Mad and Isis).

For some very odd reason nobody seems to be hypothesizing that the demographic of undergraduates that experience the greatest uptick in A grades and the greatest reduction of C grades was simply smarter than prior generations.

That should be the null hypothesis, right? I mean, it is pretty far fetched of Ms. Rampell and Dr. Isis to blame this on professor’s motivation to keep kids out of ‘nam since that should have affected the D and F grades, no?

Mike the Mad wants to blame it on graduate school admittance and the competition for limited slots….but can this really explain the late60s-early70s trends?

More likely to explain this is the incredible self-indulgence and self-righteousness of the late Boomers and the overweening generational meme that traditional “standards” were arbitrary constructs and have no bearing on proper evaluation. I’m okay, you’re okay and all that nonsense. and above all else, the sense of universal, personal entitlement.

and what do you know, as soon as the children of these people start hitting the Universities, up go the grades again.

No Responses Yet to “H0: Dope smoking, rock'nroll listenin' late Boomers were just smarter”

  1. Ria Says:

    Yes, that.


  2. FrauTech Says:

    I posited over at Dr. Isis’s place that the uptick in the ’90s *might* have something to do with Roe v Wade and abortion rights. I remembered the authors of Freakonomics saying that fewer unwanted children led to lower crime rates in the ’90s. Maybe fewer unwanted children also led to better school experiences, fewer lower than average students, average students getting more attention. Seems about as good a theory as anything else.


  3. It’s fine to have a null hypothesis of ‘smarter’, but it was an open secret that during the Vietnam War (60s-early 70s), professors were very reluctant to assign poor grades, so students could avoid the draft.

    I don’t think competition explains the 60s and 70s (didn’t mean to imply that, since I was talking about 1980 and on), but it explains the 80s and beyond (and more college graduates competing for roughly the same number of post-graduate slots from 1980-2005 seems like good circumstantial evidence).

    Besides, look at the slope from 2000 and on. Did students really get that much smarter over that short a time period? Again, it’s circumstantial, but that doesn’t seem likely.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    Look MtM, I buy the ‘nam excuse for *passing* grades. But the revolution in A grades? Surely that speaks to a fundamental shift from it meaning rare excellence to “anyone who is halfway diligent deserves an A”. That is, not coincidently, a very Boomer concept.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    You know something funny, MtM. As I’ve blogged before, the epidemiology shows that marijuana smoking stopped a ~decade slide and rebounded strongly in about 92…Hmmm.


  6. ancientTechie Says:

    I did my undergraduate work at a state university in Indiana, 1966-69. Because of the draft, more people were trying to get into state universities than the system could accommodate. As a result, each state school became known for its particular “flunk-out” courses, (Math at Purdue and English at Ball State, for instance.) Those courses served to weed out as many Freshmen as possible. Most of my classes were graded on a bell curve; the number of A’s equaled the number of F’s, (even in honors courses, which struck me as absurd, at the time.) The notion that professors were easy on students during the Viet Nam war in order to keep them from being drafted is, at least in my experience, a myth.


  7. becca Says:

    DM, I was waiting for you to weigh in with the drug trend this would match up with.
    I wish I had the graph for professorial rates of pot smoking.

    Anyway, I like to blame things on the boomers as much as anyone, but I don’t think ’64-’74

    Also worth noting- this isn’t necessarily a graph of ‘grade inflation’ unless the purpose of grades is strictly to rank students. If the purpose of grades includes measuring learning, you can’t be sure it’s inflation at all. Though plenty of people would argue that it is in that case as well.

    Both bumps in the graph coincide with social justice movements, e.g. civil rights and second wave feminism (first bump, steeper) and the modern LGBT rights movement (second bump, more shallow). Is it possible that larger societal recognition of discrimination can push professors into recognizing that they need to cut slack to people other than the dominant class, thus driving “grade inflation”?
    To be honest, a lot of the whining about ‘grade inflation’ and ‘spoiled generations’ sounds like exactly like the blowback you get from privileged classes.


  8. becca Says:

    Middle part of comment should have read “Anyway, I like to blame things on the boomers as much as anyone, but I don’t think ’64-’74 can be thought of as the discrete years in which boomers had an influence in higher ed”… unless you really believe in the difference between first-pass boomers and generation jones, or whatever the heck wiki is jibbering about. The boomers were still around after ’74…


  9. Alex Says:

    Is it possible that larger societal recognition of discrimination can push professors into recognizing that they need to cut slack to people other than the dominant class, thus driving “grade inflation”?

    First and foremost, noticing the coincidence of two trends over time is very, very dangerous for people trying to infer causation, because just about EVERYTHING changes over time. If you want to infer causation, at the very least you need more fine-grained detail so that you can do a multiple regression, rather than just look at coincidence in time.

    Second, while gays have made substantial progress since the 1980’s, in most respects our society has moved backward on social justice since then (e.g. class mobility), so I don’t know that your hypothesis for the first rise is really applicable to the second rise.

    However, taking your hypothesis at face value:

    Is it also possible that faculty who (correctly!) become more conscious of the need to be helpful and understanding in some aspects of the job (e.g. consider how they conduct discussions, how they interact with students, the sorts of readings they assign, whether their assignments are suited to multiple learning styles) also tend to become softer and fuzzier in how they grade?

    I work around colleagues with a range of grading standards, and a range of attitudes on social justice. Yes, there are a few soft graders who don’t really give a crap about anybody. And yes, there are a few who will be very nurturing and understanding and work overtime to help a disadvantaged student learn the material, while also having a high standard in grading. (Alas, the best one in that category is semi-retired, but I am glad that before she retired she gave me a harsh review for making a test too easy.) Still, let’s suppose that we made a plot:

    Horizontal axis: Number of times a faculty member says “You have to understand, at a place like this, with our students…” in lunch conversations and faculty meetings.

    Vertical axis: GPA in a faculty member’s freshman sections. (We all teach from the same book, and have similar syllabi, so it’s as close as you’ll get to a fair comparison.)

    I hypothesize that there would be a positive correlation. My observation is that many (but not all!) faculty have a hard time compartmentalizing their soft sides for some parts of the job (listening, advising, leading discussions, helping a person catch up, helping a person who learns differently) and their hard sides for other parts of the job (maintaining a standard for how much of the material you’ve mastered by the end of the course). It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more faculty like that guy in “Stand And Deliver”, who work tirelessly for the under-privileged while also maintaining strict standards. I try, but I certainly fall short.


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