Although the University will always have students who place undue emphasis on competition and external validation, numerical rankings encourage all students—even those not normally concerned with academic competitiveness—to evaluate their performance with reference to their peers’. It feeds the worst elements of Duke’s intellectual culture. It reinforces attitudes that cause students to pad their schedules with easy but uninteresting classes and that encourage them to please the grade-givers instead of seeking to gain knowledge for their own benefit.
For first-year students, in particular, class rankings can disappoint and discourage, tarnishing students’ self-images and causing them to lose confidence in their intellectual abilities. Schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at which first-year students do not receive numerical grades, have long recognized the deleterious effects of inculcating or encouraging hyper-competitive behavior among students new to the collegiate game. We are pleased Duke is beginning to follow their lead.
According to a missive sent last week from Lee Baker, Dean of Academic Affairs of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and Linda Franzoni, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the Pratt School of Engineering, the University has not eliminated rankings solely to discourage hyper-competitive behavior. The Deans also hope to “provide [students] with more accurate and meaningful comparative information about [their] academic performance.” Although students will no longer have to confront their numerical ranking whenever they check grades on ACES, they will still have the opportunity to request their percentile ranking.
We caution against giving too much weight to comparative data. If, however, the University wishes to provide students with valuable comparative information, it should consider ranking students within their departments and indicating the mean grade point average next to a student’s GPA on their transcript. Given grade inflation and differences in grading standards across departments, these measures would offer students meaningful information that might help them as they apply to jobs and graduate schools.
Rankings will never be a perfect metric of a student’s academic ability. If they have any value at all, it is wholly instrumental. We live in a world in which graduate schools and employers need ways to differentiate among qualified applicants, and metrics like class rank can allow them to cull top students from the pack. The instrumental value afforded by class rank, however, remains less important than the value gained by embarking on a sincere search for knowledge, taking intellectual risks and privileging personal success over external validation.
Education has intrinsic worth, and universities should strive not to churn out a new managerial class but to help students grow as human beings. An overly competitive academic environment threatens our ability to achieve this goal, and eliminating class rankings represents an important—albeit small—step towards creating an intellectual environment in which knowledge is valued for its own sake.