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Mediocrity, Meritocracy, and the University: Yale Goes Pass/Fail

As COVID-19 became increasingly alarming and universities shut down their dorms, Yale students lobbied for a Universal Pass (UP) policy for the rest of the semester: no grades, no possibility of failure. In response, a fellow Yalie, Esteban Elizondo ‘19 wrote an article titled, “Yale students are using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to lower standards.” He argued that this movement, spawned by indolent student activists and veiled by excuses of compassion for low income and disadvantaged students, was just a way for privileged Ivy League students to escape the meritocratic elements that the rest of society lives and dies by. Leave it to university students to work hard for a policy that allows them to do nothing! 

Similar articles have filled my Facebook feed for the past few weeks. They all decry this lazy revolution. This opinion could be motivated by a general hatred of protest culture, a particular affinity for the system of grades that admitted most “grown-ups” into universities in the first place, or the deep-seated belief that college students need the harsh stick of quantified success to keep their brains from turning into mush. Most generously, this opinion could be animated by the belief that maintaining the vigorous academic drive of students during a time of crisis will shape well-educated leadership for the future. Once the crisis is over, students will emerge whip-smart, ready to reanimate the economy, and reform regulations to ensure we don’t see a COVID-20 anytime soon.

But for better or for worse, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun announced on Tuesday, April 7, that the college would adopt a Universal Pass/Fail policy for the Spring 2020 semester. Because there is an incredibly low percentage of students who fail a class in any given semester, this policy is not markedly different from the proposed UP policy. Combined with the assumption that professors will be extra lenient with students due to the extenuating circumstances, the policy isn’t different at all. Students got what they wanted. Now what?

The Universal Pass/Fail policy is not the only solution, but it can certainly be part of a good one. There may be a negative inflection of this policy, as Elizondo and so many others outline, where privileged students lounge at home, delusionally counting themselves among the victims of the global pandemic, and neglect their education—all while feeling like heroes for the underprivileged. But this Universal Pass/Fail policy is not just for low income students, kneecapping the successful to bring those un-earned affirmative action admits into the fold of ivory tower equality as Elizondo alludes. There is a clear positive iteration that isn’t just an endorsement of leftist protest culture. 

Ivy League students have been molded by the strictures of meritocracy from the time they were in diapers. Those naysaying articles arguing that without grades, students will deteriorate into listless and irresponsible lifestyles seem to believe that cultural capitalism didn’t work. Loosened metrics of comparison in a time of crisis don’t compute as time to relax. If the decision to make classes grade-free didn’t make you breathe a sigh of relief because it afforded you the time to take care of sick relatives or provide for your family, it filled you with a sense of anxiety. What if you slack off and professors—who haven’t seen enough academic output—won’t write you a letter of recommendation for graduate school or fellowships or a job? What if your internship is cancelled and a whole summer wastes away, with nothing to show for it on a resume? What if your classmates aren’t just sitting at home twiddling their thumbs, but learning to code or invest or speak French?

This thought process may illustrate a destructive tendency, a subset of society that genuinely doesn’t know how to relax; but it means that the students aren’t just succumbing to the sloth-inducing machinations of the university system. The university that just told students that their coursework won’t be graded for the rest of the semester also made them spend the past semesters slaving over the works of Kafka, Wells, Vonnegut, Verne, and Huxley for literature classes, formulating papers on the proper ethical distribution of life-saving medical technology in political science classes, and discussing counterfactuals like, “What if the bubonic plague happened today?” in history classes. 

University students have been steeped in the hypotheticals and unrealities of dystopian thought for years. They were training for this battle. A change in academic policy cannot shield students from crisis because the crisis was never academic in nature. A change in grading policy can only change their focus. Universal Pass/Fail looses them from the restrictions of the classroom and lets them lead.

Students have already proven their industrious inclinations. Liam Elkind ‘21, a student in New York City, founded a group called Invisible Hands and amassed 1,300 volunteers in less than 72 hours to bring medicine and groceries to vulnerable populations. Others have similarly founded mutual aid funds to help those who find themselves financially disadvantaged by the crisis to pay bills, afford child care, and buy groceries; some are simply uploading online resources like instructional videos, humorous content, and virtual tutoring services. Tech savvy young adults are helping communities digitally transition so that people can productively work and socialize from home. These students invest their time into transitioning the networks they built while on campus into crowdsourced campaigns for good while we’re all off campus. These students aren’t just bandwagon virtue signaling as lazy activists, they’re real virtuous innovators.

In a time where everything is so upside down, like in many dystopian novels, a college undergraduate really can recruit their rag-tag friends and try to save the world. While the larger system of meritocracy remains unchanged in the post-grad world of jobs and fellowships and graduate schools, students won’t be doing nothing. Some students are staying at home, trying to complete their classes reasonably well and reintegrate into family life. Others are working essential jobs and caring for sick relatives. And others, others saw an opportunity and are trying to change the world, and their resumes too.