Grade inflation and what it says about our culture

‘You can’t fade my swag.’ ‘Don’t sweat my swag.’ If you are not familiar with these lines, or something similar, you do not get around young people often. Swag is a term used to define one’s bravado, that is, one’s swagger. That’s right, young people now find it appealing to brag about bragging. The comical irony is that if one did have any sort of swagger one would not need to pronounce it on a t-shirt—it would be perceived by onlookers without brandishing the lines across one’s chest. But, what I am particularly concerned with is not the irony but the attraction of the claim.


There has never been a shortage of bragging in popular culture. But this focus on Swag seems a bit different in that it is based upon something even more superficial than what we typically find people bragging about. For instance, when the Beastie Boys rapped, “I got skillz to pay the billz,” the line was adopted by former NBA star Tim Hardaway. Even if one does not agree with bragging one can understand the basis of the claim being made by one of the biggest groups at the time and one of the hottest NBA stars at the time. That is, while we may not agree with it, we can understand if LeBron James were to get a little full of himself from time to time.


But this sort of arrogance is not the basis for the Swag claim. Swag is baseless arrogance borne of a culture that values the individual and not the accomplishment. The opening song in the Broadway musical ‘Matilda’ captures this point with comic beauty. “One can hardly move for beauty and brilliance these days/It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days/Specialness seems de rigueur/Above average is average—go figure/It is some modern miracle of calculus, that such frequent miracles don’t render each one unmiraculous?”


As an educator I worry about this situation. In the liberal arts we teach the whole student which means the topics we cover also shape the worldview of the students we engage. Rote memorization is not where we end. Therefore, to teach one must understand the audience. Proclaiming unwarranted grandeur, and then deflecting criticism of one’s affectations with “Haters gonna hate, know what I mean?”—which is the modern equivalent of “I’m rubber you’re glue”—demonstrates a sensibility that is devoid of introspection or true sense of worth. This sensibility is difficult to instruct. When individualism trumps all else opinion is substituted for knowledge and there is no incentive to learn or to accept challenges to one’s manner of thinking. On several occasions I’ve had students proclaim that they cannot be wrong because it is their opinion they have stated. The denial of truth, or facts, is symptomatic of individualism run amok.


Individualism leads to relativism as the individual is allowed to be the measure of all things. Individuals become beholden only to themselves and are unmoored from any sense of enduring moral order, sense of tradition, place, or history. When there is nothing above oneself that one can be measured by or use as a guide, one is left rudderless and can look only to oneself as the means and the end of existence.


With each passing semester more students demand—yes, demand—not just a passing grade but an ‘A’—students are beginning to think they deserve the grade they want not the grade they have earned. Professors feel pressure to give out higher than deserved grades for fear students who receive poor grades will give the professors poor evaluations in retaliation. Is Swag related to grade inflation? Swag is not something one earns but something one projects on a t-shirt. An inflated grade is not something one earns but something one projects on a transcript. Both are baseless accomplishments, accomplishments without merit, and therefore no accurate sense of self-worth can be based upon either.


Our education system will continue to fall behind those of other countries if we refuse to hold our young people accountable by objective measures of accomplishment rather than simply give in to their desires. Unfortunately this process cannot take place exclusively in our schools. Politicians who fight for traditional values should not give in to the wave of social libertarianism that seems to be sweeping through Republicans as well as Democrats. Of course, institutions in civil society must work towards similar ends, but our classrooms, and in particular how we grade, are as good a starting place as any if we want to turn back rampant individualism.

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