Lest this explanation seem overly elaborate or paranoid, consider that the majority of academics working in North American universities today, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines, are not only on the political left but are sympathetic to and influenced by far-left ideologies such as Marxism, post-colonialism, radical feminism, and queer identity politics. (See, for example, the report by the California Association of Scholars on the politicization of the University of California system.) On the whole, they believe both that Western society in its present form is racist, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic, and also that their primary function as radical professors, even above the teaching of their specific area of expertise, is to redress the perceived violence perpetrated against the West’s victims. Their socio-political commitments are on display in their published scholarship and often evident in their classroom practice — though the latter is more difficult, though not impossible, to ascertain (as David Horowitz’s The Professors revealed). To assume that such commitments would not influence grading is to mistake the depth and earnestness of their beliefs. Even those professors whose political sympathies are centrist-liberal rather than leftist will by and large agree that social justice should play some role in the university’s modern mandate.
Moreover, there is in many progressive circles a vague, often inarticulate, bias against ability of various kinds, particularly economic ability and success, but also intellectual ability. Just as the able businessman is assumed to be mistreating or cheating his employees and the successful investor to be engaged in shady financial dealings, so there is a subtle taint of unfair advantage attached to the brilliant student. When failure (crime, drug addiction, violence, poverty, unemployment) is explained by oppression, achievement has a hard time disassociating itself from oppressiveness. The high-performing student is often assumed, even if only unconsciously, to be coasting on some form of unfair advantage.
Other factors operate as well to produce the grading practices I observed. Many left-leaning instructors are simply not very interested in grades, finding the whole process of differentiation distasteful, the academic equivalent of the cruel laissez-faire economy. Assigning grades violates their egalitarian sympathies. Others are a bit threatened by bright students, who ask uncomfortable questions. Although some left-leaning instructors enjoy a good political argument, many are not used to defending their assumptions against opposing points of view, having spent all of their lives in the company of fellow travelers. It is sometimes the case, also, that high-functioning students are instinctively opposed to their instructor’s left-leaning mandate, disrupting his or her time-honored classroom practices.
It is also possible, I believe, that some instructors are simply befuddled. Having held to a leftist faith for a long time — resolutely ignoring or deriding anything that might disprove their beliefs — they are no longer capable of evaluating evidence or arriving with confidence at an independent judgement. What they know is the doctrine of benevolence, the mantra of race and class justice, the imperative to fight against social wrongs. On these principles only can they act with conviction, certain that an army of the like-minded will stand behind them, roaring approval. They see truth-bending practices at work, and applauded, in many spheres of their society — in an entire legal system that gives lighter sentences to the socially oppressed, in government policies of affirmative action, in President Obama’s championing, without evidence, of a black “victim” named Trayvon who may have been a perpetrator. Making decisions on the basis of merit alone is beyond them. Having once felt the exhilaration of marching shoulder-to-shoulder in some ostensibly righteous cause, they have forgotten — or never learned — how to make their way in any other manner.
It is a pity that “social justice” should lead to inconsistent and inaccurate — and deeply unfair — grading practices; and that the equality mandate should have so undermined the academic enterprise.