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Pass/fail issue concerns more than just grades

Freshman year pass/no-record stands for more than just a grading policy. It demonstrates MIT's faith that students take their educations seriously. It is a continuing vote of confidence in MIT's ability to address the needs of a unique and diverse group of students. When initiated, it was a radical idea, conceived in an era when faculty were beginning to accept the idea that a doctrine of in loco parentis was inappropriate and counterproductive for students who had demonstrated, by their achievement in high school and promise for the future, that they were capable of ordering their own lives.

Now we face a turning point. Faculty believe students have not been well-served by this system. Their solution is to take back pass/no-record or limit it, and return to a grade-incentive system. This sends several clear messages.

First, the Committee on the First-Year Program proposal says grades are important -- more important than anything else. Professor William T. Peake '51 pointed out that pass/no-record sends the opposite message. So what? I thought the whole point was to impress upon students the importance of learning, not to encourage them to judge their self-worth on the basis of grades. The grades a student receives freshman year are not important ten years later. Whether or not that freshman jumps off the Green Building is.

Second, the faculty supporting the proposal are implying that students under the pass/no-record system are lazy, careless, and unmotivated. If this is true, perhaps MIT should revoke the degrees it has been giving away for the last 15 years or so. Has MIT been graduating incompetent engineers ever since pass/no-record was initiated?

Finally, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, in supporting this proposal, is suggesting that an MIT degree is nothing special. MIT must conform to the same procedures as most other schools in the country. Without those freshman grades, potential employers and graduate schools really cannot be sure of what they are getting.

The CFYP proposal to restructure pass/no-record attempts to confront valid concerns, but ultimately fails. Students seem to be less prepared in upper-level classes. A few students overload during freshman year. Is this any reason to scrap a system that has basically worked? We would replace it with an unwieldy, ambiguous plan that attempts to satisfy everyone except those with a vision of what an MIT education should be.

The first obvious solution to improving undergraduate education at MIT is to improve the quality of teaching and quantify exactly what standards are expected. MIT has the right and duty to expect students to work hard. But it also has an obligation to be fair. If freshmen do not understand the fundamentals of Physics II (18.02) or any class, fail them. Whether a freshman receives an A, B, or C should make no difference to subsequent professors.

On a deeper level, MIT must address fundamental questions of how it plans to educate students in the years to come. Are we to continue a policy of basic training for the "battlefield of Course VI," or are we going to look to the future, when it will not be enough to be the best trade school in the United States? Proposals to tinker with the grading system not only fail to solve any problems, they institutionalize the ways of thinking that will shackle us to the past and stifle any vision of the future.

A lack of vision drives this debate. The amendment that Professors Marc A. Kastner and Robert J. Birgeneau have proposed to the pass/no-record motion now before the faculty attempts to pacify students and restore a safety net for "those who need pass/no-record." But everyone needs pass/no-record. Pass/no-record's purpose is not to shield poor performance, it is to reward exceptional performance and give students an opportunity to achieve their educational goals without the distracting pressure of grades. Pass/no-record boldly asserts a vision of MIT as the best educational institution in the country. What we do here, others cannot. Do not turn pass/no-record into a badge of dishonor that must be selected by the lowest half of the class who cannot deal with grades.

When faculty members vote, they face a clear choice. One path surrenders to the proposition that we cannot educate without grades. The other, in this case the status quo, reaffirms the greatness of MIT, its faculty, and its students. There are problems with the MIT education, but the solution is not retrenchment. It is to move forward again, to perfect a good system, to recommit to the ideals that have elevated this institute in the past and which will carry it forward in the future. Strangely, the most ambitious and visionary choice is the conservative one. Pass/no-record is good. Let it be.

Dave Atkins '90->