Duke University Alumni Magazine

Please limit letters to no more than 300 words. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity. Include full name, address, and class year. Our fax number is (919) 684-6022 and our internet address --for Forum and class notes only--is: dukemag@acpub.duke.edu



     I enjoyed reading "Duke After Dark" in your March-April 1997 issue, but I was disturbed by a passage in the "Hillel House" section written by Joanna Cohn '99. Having lamented that Hillel services typically draw even fewer than the twenty-five people then in attendance, Cohn writes, "The regular attendees don't celebrate their heritage and religion for their parents--they do it for themselves."

     What are we to make of this statement? Does Cohn mean to say that those students who go to Hillel infrequently or not at all lack a genuine, personal Jewish faith? That students cannot "celebrate" elsewhere, such as at the local synagogue on Cornwallis Road? That one's faith must be exhibited publicly and regularly to "count"? How can she pretend to know "for whom" certain Jews attend services?

     Perhaps Cohn should consider the possibility that Hillel House does not fulfill the spiritual needs of all of Duke's Jewish students. In my six years in Durham, I went to Hillel services several times and simply was never comfortable worshipping there. I preferred to go to the local synagogue for occasional Shabbat and high-holiday services when I was unable to join my family in Pennsylvania. I understand that Hillel has evolved since I left Duke, and I hope that it will be able to attract more students to its services. Yet the possibility undoubtedly remains that many will choose to worship in places or ways other than those offered by Hillel.

     As a worshiper who claims to be cognizant of "the common bond of a 3,000-year-old religion," Cohn must also be aware of the way that adherents to that religion have long suffered from the assumptions, prejudices, and condemnation inflicted by others. I can only hope that she will think twice before she thoughtlessly applies similarly disparaging labels to Jews again.

Michael F. White '92, A.M. '94
Charlottesville, Virginia



     Robert Bliwise's article ["Where Are the C's of Yesteryear?", May-June 1997]on the Duke grading system hit home to me. My student years at Duke preceded the era of grade inflation; but as a law professor at Duke and New York University (1962-1990), I experienced grade compression in full flower and grew progressively pessimistic about the outcome.

     We academics love to hear each year that our incoming students are brighter than ever, scoring higher on SATs and LSATs, etc. It seems reasonable to believe that each group will earn a higher percentage of good grades than their predecessors. We are also reminded that competitive schools are granting more A's and B's these days; if we don't respond in kind, their graduates will have an unfair advantage in the job hunt. We go with the flow, because we perceive no downside risk.

     Suddenly it's 1997, and many departments are giving A's to more than half of their students and granting B's to almost all of the others. The A signifies only that the recipient ranks somewhere around the top half of the class. (What's left for the B to signify?) The more A's we give, the less information each A actually conveys to students, their families, to graduate schools, and prospective employers. And if everybody gets an A, in effect, we have abolished grades!

     Graduate schools and employers are looking for our very best students. If grades don't tell them what they wish to know, they will pursue other means. National achievement test scores, personal appearance, family connections, and recommendations from favored professors will fill the vacuum left by the faculty's abdication of its responsibility to teach and grade rigorously.

     Apparently, professors who understand that their profession has diminished its authority as the arbiter of academic merit are searching for new standards. Maybe they should consider radical grading reform: A through F, by way of C.

John D. Johnston Jr. '54, LL.B. '96
Asheville, North Carolina


     The article on grade indexing and grade inflation seems to miss an important point, one possibly not fully appreciated by students until they go into the real world. The purpose in taking any course is not to get a good grade but to learn something. No matter how difficult or easy the course is, it should only be taken because mastering that particular bit of information is important to the future of the student.

     Each course is an entity, not to be compared with another course. If you earn an A in Economics 1, it indicates to you and to the world that you now understand the material covered in that course. The fact that it is not as difficult a course as astral navigation has no bearing on either the grade or the achievement.

     When you seek entrance to postgraduate study, or when you seek employment, that A tells your interviewer that you have accomplished some definite thing. Your mastery of Economics 1 should not be degraded by comparison with any other course. And your A should indicate mastery of the subject, just as a C would indicate a nodding acquaintance.

     I see no reason why professors cannot be trained to grade properly; after all they are highly paid professionals. It should be possible to have all Economics 1 courses taught using the same criteria. If all the members of one class earn A's, that should mean that they all mastered the course, not that the instructor is an easy grader.

     As expensive as a university education is nowadays, students should expect it to prepare them to venture forth into the world of business and have success. But any business owner will tell you that most graduates are poorly equipped to do the job for which they are supposedly prepared. This is not necessarily the fault of the students, who cannot be good judges of how much they are learning. It is the fault of the institution that misled them with inflated grades into thinking that they were learning.

     I think the failure of the indexing proposal was the best thing that could have happened to your students. Now you might start addressing the other problems in grading.

Fred Dennerline '48
Palm City, Florida


     The May-June story "Faith in the Future" on the divinity school attributed this statement to Priscilla Pope-Levison, assistant professor of the practice of evangelism: "They [the students] insist on using 'God the Father' even though there are other, more acceptable metaphors in the Bible." The statement should read, "...there are other as acceptable metaphors in the Bible."

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