Discover more from Glenn Loury
The Meaning of a B-
with John McWhorter
When John McWhorter and I talk on The Glenn Show, we tend to talk about race. It’s our beat. We’re “The Black Guys.” So when we talk about changing (or perhaps I should say “falling”) standards in academia, we tend to do so in a race-related context. We talk about affirmative action, we talk about racial disparities in test scores, we talk about the cultural barriers to academic excellence, and so on.
But it’s worth noting that the meaning of test scores and grades seem to have changed. They were once indicators of a student’s performance relative to a given standard. A C meant “average performance,” nothing more. Now grades and scores have acquired a kind of moral significance all out of proportion to what they really mean (or should mean). The “people with three names” insist that racial disparities in academic achievement can only demonstrate that the standard itself is racist, while students and parents at elite institutions view below-average grades as unjust, life-ruining punishments.
In the following excerpt from our most recent Substack subscriber-only Q&A session, John and I discuss the real problem with grade inflation. It’s most dire, I think, when it comes to racial disparities, but attempts to lower the bar for underperforming black students do not tell the whole story. We’re losing our grip on what makes standards meaningful. And if we let go entire, we’re going to be in very deep trouble.
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GLENN LOURY: Okay, you're gonna like this one, John. I mean, you're gonna not like it, but it's going to get your juices flowing. This is from Phil.
I teach 12th graders at a charter school in Chicago with a policy that makes it so that the lowest grade a student can receive is 50% on any assignment, test, quiz, or project. If the student is absent and doesn't do the assignment, they still get 50%. If a student is there but refuses to do an assignment, they still get 50%. If a student plagiarizes or commits any kind of active academic dishonesty, they still get 50%.
My school is not unique, as many other schools nationwide have similar policies. What do you think of this type of policy? If you were giving advice to high school administrators, what type of policies on grading would you recommend so that students would be best prepared for college?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Well, it seems to me that that policy that you're talking about seems to have been set in place as an acknowledgement that life is hard for black kids, I'm thinking. And, you know, that's nice. If you set the bar lower, why would you expect people to excel? Why would you expect anybody to excel with the bar set low except for the occasional obsessive person or the occasional superstar? To ask why people are only doing so well if you only require so much makes no blessed sense at all. And that doesn't change because the people in question are descendants of slaves brought from Africa or Jim Crow or redlining. The question doesn't change.
First of all, I thought, if everybody's getting at least 50%, all I have to do if I'm an outside observer of these grades is recalibrate my system so that a 50% means, in effect, a zero and a 70% means in effect a 30% or whatever. So there's that. But the other thing that I thought was, it's not just charter schools in Chicago where everybody is above average. It's also undergraduate colleges at places like Brown where you can't give anything less than a B to a student without the student's parents coming and sitting out in your office wanting to know why you just ruined the kid's life. A C on the transcript means he'll never get in the Yale Law School. Never! I literally can't give a C without there being a crisis, without me worrying about suicide watch. I'm not kidding.
No, it's true. You can only give a C if the student almost never showed up.
Exactly. Aren't the elite upper class guilty of the same contempt for honest assessment calling a failure a failure, as it were, as we think some people who are responsible for teaching lower class kids are guilty of?
Yeah. Of course, what this means is that both you and I know that we have recalibrated what grades mean, so that we think of the whole scale as being in between A-plus and straight B. B-minus is roughly what a D used to be. I think everybody knows that. And with that school, it would be the same sort of thing, where you realize that you just have to recalibrate what you think of as excellence. But nobody's really fooled. We are afraid to say you didn't do it right, because everybody is supposed to be above average, and that's a wooly-headed way of thinking. Everybody can't be above average.
But there's a certain way of thinking, and I know in the education world, it comes in starting in the late-'60s, that you're supposed to give people that inflated sense of worth because that supposedly brings out better performance. Where is it proven that it does? You would like it to, but it doesn't. It just makes people uncomfortable with genuine criticism. Next thing you know, you have people saying, get rid of standardized tests, because some people aren't as good at them. There's a straight line from one place to the other.
You know, the question that's gonna come in now is, if I think all people are equal in God's eyes, then why am I so impatient with the fact that standardized tests seem to be such a challenge for, for example, black students. If I think it's so obvious, then how come I don't think that the tests are racist? Because what people like Kendi are saying is that there must must be some problem with the test, because everybody is equal in God's eyes.
Whereas where you have to take it is, why might a cultural group not be as good at a test? And the answer is not because they're not as bright, but it's not because there's something wrong with the test. It's because of a cultural group's attitude towards purely abstract reasoning. And that can differ for any number of reasons. And it's not that anybody has to say it explicitly. It's as much in what's not said as in what's said. If you're not like the working-class South Asian immigrant kids on the subway, where despite the fact that their mother and father didn't go to college and aren't readers, they're gonna kick butt on that test and go to Stuyvesant because that's what one does in their culture.
That's not true of New York's black American culture. It simply isn't. It's not that anybody says, “We don't value doing well on tests.” It's that nobody would tell you you have to kick butt on the test. And I think it's not an accident that we can easily imagine somebody saying in a Guyanese accent or a Nigerian accent, “You better do well on that test.” Not in a black American accent. It's not part of the culture. And that is understandable. It's historically understandable. That's why black American kids tend not to do well on standardized tests, and that has to be discussed. We need to have a further discussion about why there are these racial disparities.
If you just leave it sitting, you become Myron Magnet, and that that worries. Myron Magnet, by the way, used to edit City Journal, and I worked under him. I didn't like it. And he's done some bad things to me. And I think Myron Magnet is a racist. Yes, folks, I said it. He's one of the few racists I know. One does not want to be Myron Magnet. And don't cut that, editors.
You get to say what you think about Myron Magnet. I have no dog in that fight. You get a disparity. There are three things that could be going on. It could be discrimination: racism, unfair treatment of black people. Could be intrinsic inferiority: they just don't have it, they tend to be more criminal, they're stupid. Or it could be culture. Or some mix of those things. But basically those are the only things you've got. So if you are willing to acknowledge the fact that discrimination has significantly diminished from what it was 50 years ago, and if you're persuaded that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with black people, as the Ibram X. Kendis of the world are persuaded, then you're left only with the fact that, as you just got through stating in so many words, there are cultural differences between population groups that incline people to behave differently and to invest in their efforts differently.
And the results are then reflected in, it might be higher crime rates, it might be lower academic performance, or whatever it might be. I think, for many critics of what I just said, many woke commentators, the assumption that there is a cultural difference distinctive of different racial groups—Asians do well in academics because their families are oriented toward pushing their kids in that direction—is almost as offensive as saying that there's a genetic difference between the population groups. They want to deny what we can see before our lying eyes, which is that there really are differences of value, norms, patterns of expectation, parenting. What peer groups valorize and what they don't that are consequential for whether you end up in trouble with the law or whether you end up doing well on the SAT. They don't want to acknowledge that.
We are such primitive creatures in terms of how words end up working. And so to the kind of person you're talking about, if you say culture, they're mad. “What do you mean culture?” Now the same person is very happy to say that there's something wrong with white culture. There's something wrong with white people. White people are bad. White people won't give up their power. White culture: bad. But if you say black culture, then they bristle, because you're saying there's something wrong with black culture.
And the idea seems to be that there can't be anything counterproductive about the culture of a people who have been oppressed by another culture. There can't be anything that black people might do better. That makes no sense whatsoever. It makes no logical sense. It's a fist up in the air on a t-shirt. That's all. But yeah, you can't say culture. I try not to, because it gets people going. A subculture, a group can do things for whatever reason that are not productive within the modern context. And to pretend that you can't say that about black people without being a racist or self-hating makes no sense.
And I think most onlookers understand that. Most in-lookers understand that. It becomes a matter of etiquette. It's what you're allowed to say in public. And I think what you and I are doing is just showing that you can say it in public and be a perfectly normal person and the sky does not fall in. But yeah, there's a problem.
There are no leaders who can just stand up and tell people what to do. But there are influencers, and there are many of them. There's not just one. And I think popular culture is one such source. If LeBron James or his ilk were to come out and say, “Put your notes to the grindstone, work hard, and you can get ahead in this country,” of course he would be banned, canceled, and reviled. If Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, in the luxury of their retirement at the top of American political hierarchy, were to start making speeches like Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are inclined to make, I believe that that would actually have a difference.
There are people with three names of about 40 who would rip both of them a new one in places that we're very familiar with, because they would be seen as being condescending and patronizing, et cetera, as Barack Obama even was. Those people have no scruples. It's supposed to be about racism forever. If you're not talking about racism, you are the devil's spawn. Even if you're LeBron James or Barack Obama, or even Michelle Obama. I can just see it.