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Letters to the Editor

Contextual mistake

I am writing in response to The New York Times' article on Wednesday concerning the grade inflation at Princeton. I was one of several misquoted students and am infuriated by the way in which the interviews were framed.


After a thirty-minute discussion which focused on the extreme demands placed on faculty and preceptors, and on the high standards of Princeton students, two brief statements appeared in connection with my name. Both these statements implied that the instructors and students at this University are accustomed to mediocre work. This implication was neither an intentional nor subtextual component of my interview.

The first comment was devoid of its original context, while the second (regarding 'semi-intelligible' A papers) was an utter misquotation. This misquotation is clearly evidenced by the fact that the two comments thoroughly contradict one another. How is it possible that in the first quote I assert that A-students are clearly doing good work, and in the second call their efforts semi-intelligible?

I have written a letter to the editor of The Times and called the staff reporter, but his pathetic journalism concerns me, not in terms of his paper's larger audience, but rather in terms of this University's reception. I am greatly disturbed that Princeton's students and faculty might believe that I have genuinely devalued their labors.

The article bulges with negligence, from its rigid focus on the humanities to sweeping departmental generalizations. Further, since the information that was utilized is a clear misrepresentation, the integrity of the piece is totally debunked. I am offended by the tone of the article and am embarrassed that my name appears in it. At this point, it is simply of importance to me that the Princeton community understands my frustration and knows that my supposed "quotations" do not reflect my thinking. Tucker Culbertson '99

Declining standards

No doubt, Wednesday's front-page article in The New York Times on grade inflation at Princeton was widely read on campus. I am writing not to offer an explanation for grade inflation, but to comment on an assumption that is frequently made regarding it. The hypothesis that "today's students are simply smarter" is regularly offered as an explanation. I believe the opposite to be true; students were considerably better 20 years ago than they are today.

I have been teaching history at an elite public high school in Chappaqua, N.Y. since 1966. During most of that time, I have taught AP European or American history. Dozens of my former students have matriculated at Princeton. Dozens of others have gone on to other very highly selective colleges.


Twenty years ago I required my AP history students to read E. H. Carr's "What is History?" from cover to cover. One of my former students (who went on to Princeton) told me that her professors all expressed surprise when she informed them that she had read and understood this very demanding book (which they were assigning for their 300-level history courses) in high school!

As the years went by, I discovered much to my regret that my AP students were having more and more difficulty coping with the intellectual demands made by Carr's text. I responded by assigning only selected chapters from the book. Even these proved too difficult, and finally, with a sense of despair, I stopped using the book altogether. Nowadays, I make use of only one very brief excerpt from it.

Anecdotal evidence you say? Over the years I have made it a persistent practice to ask other teachers (high school, prep school and college), who have been teaching long enough to discern a trend, if they had a similar experience. Across the board their experiences parallel my own. Students increasingly suffer from a loss of what can only be described as the ability to fully focus their (not inconsiderable) intelligence on challenging material. (I have no doubt the pervasiveness of television is mainly to blame for this problem.)

The difficulty goes well beyond history and other so-called "reading subjects," however. An esteemed colleague, who has been teaching the BC Calculus (AP) course for many years tells me that the AP exam has been made easier and easier, effectively concealing declining standards.

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Grade inflation is a persistent problem everywhere for all the reasons listed by Randal C. Archibold in his New York Times article. I propose no cure for the disease, but I reject out of hand the facile explanation that today's students are "smarter." (Unless, of course, you define "smarter" as more able to get higher grades.) C. Thomas Corwin '62