Profs don’t care about your self-esteem

We will fail you if you deserve it: Prof. Pettrigrew

I found most of this review of Cote and Allahar’s Lowering Higher Education in the Halifax Chronicle Herald unobjectionable, but there was one passage that stood out as just plain wrong to me:

In undergraduate courses as well as high school classes, giving low marks is now verboten because it is considered detrimental to building “students’ self–esteem.”

First, I’m not at all convinced that high school is all about self-esteem these days, regardless of what one hears in the media. From what I hear from teachers, the emphasis is on “success.” The problem is that the bar for success is continually lowered until the student in question can reach it, but that’s a separate issue.

Even if the cult of self-esteem is what has trashed standards in high schools — and I don’t doubt that those standards have been trashed — I have not observed the same thing at my university.

For one thing, the principle of academic freedom is deeply embedded in university culture, and administrators know there would be a storm of protest if a professor was forced to raise a grade simply because a student felt bad about getting it. If my Dean called me up and said, “I know you gave Marley Median an F in English, but we feel that it’s important to cultivate self esteem…” I’d have hung up and placed a call to my faculty association before he finished the sentence. University faculty associations are powerful, well-funded, and extremely litigious. Administrators usually leave well-enough alone.

Second, university professors don’t have to answer to parents. Provincial privacy laws help a great deal here (sorry, I can’t discuss that…) as does the fairly pervasive sense that university students are adults (sorry, I shan’t discuss that…). Parents seem to recognize these realities as well, and where they might have gone to bat for Janey over whether Mrs. Denominator marked her math test correctly, they have no interest in calling Dr. Hightower to complain about Janey’s essay on the epistemology of Kant and Hume. Indeed, I am a comparatively tough grader, and in over ten years as a professor, I have yet to hear a parent complain that their children’s self-esteem has been unfairly trodden on by one of my low grades.

None of this is to say that university standards are not an important issue, nor to say that there are not threats to them. The reliance on positive student evaluations for tenure and promotion is a problem. So is the unwillingness to track down plagiarism. So is the over-zealous application of policies for accommodating disabilities. And the list goes on.

A wide-spread need to protect students’ self-esteem, thankfully, is not a problem at universities. At least not yet.