For a generation now, Garrison Keillor has been telling us that Lake Woebegon is the town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Turns out Lake Woebegon is America, since according to a new study, 60 percent of college freshmen now say their intellectual ability is higher than the norm. Psychologist Jean Twenge, whose most recent book is Generation Me, says that compares to just 39 percent of kids who were claiming to be above average back in 1966. And she fears that the overinflated egos of the young are setting them up for a fall. “It’s not just confidence,” she told the Chicago Sun Times. “It’s overconfidence.”
One factor leading the young to think better of themselves, Twenge’s research team posits, might be grade inflation; in 1966, only 19 percent of students surveyed had A averages in high school, compared to 48 percent now (which really does make one wonder what “A” is supposed to mean.) This explains why schools all seemed to have eight or 10 or 12 valedictorians on the podiums at recent graduations, rather than just one; we don’t want anybody’s feelings getting hurt or self-esteem suffering. Schools no longer celebrate or encourage competitiveness; the emphasis is on togetherness instead.
That would be fine if the boat we’re all on were rising. It’s not. Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke biophysics professor who founded the website Gradeinflation.com, says students at elite universities now spend an average of 10 fewer hours a week studying than they did in the 1960s. (Hey, gotta have that Facebook time!) And their unwillingness to put in more time and work harder, he says, means fewer students sticking with difficult majors like engineering and hard sciences in college. And why should parents encourage them to tough it out? Better to pay $50,000 a year for a 4.0 GPA than a 2.5, right? Woe to those students who inadvertently attend the handful of colleges and universities actively working to reverse grade inflation, most notably Princeton, where only 39.7 percent of kids are now wrangling As—down from 47.9 in 2003-2004.