A second opinion on no-fail scholarship

STANFORD is regularly ranked among the top 10 universities - the short list of academic excellence, the A team. Doubtless it is difficult for Stanford's faculty and administration to conceive of a student accepted by them ever being capable of sinking to the lowest extreme of an F, as in flunking. But like saints trying to imagine the ninth circle of Dante's inferno - a world below their ken - the powers-that-be at Palo Alto are considering restoring F to students' report cards as the ultimate scarlet letter. The grade of F was abolished at Stanford in 1969, along, in fact, with the grade of D - that lesser acknowledgment of academic disgrace. Students who fell below C simply received no credit for the course, as if they or perhaps the course did not exist.

Ah, the '60s, when the young took charge of all the grading systems in life and adults were the ones who got marked F - just for being over 30. In colleges across the land, students not only prescribed how they should be graded (very gently) but what they should be taught. ``Relevance'' was the governing standard that swept away all those musty old courses, like history. Make it Now, man!

The imminent restoration of F on the report card must be taken as a clear signal that, for better and worse, the Age of Permissiveness has ended. The stiff graders have come back to authority in almost all areas of life except the schools.

A politician cannot deliver a speech without all the pundits grading it on a scale of 1 to 10 - and 5 (the equivalent of F) is pretty generous, coming from the likes of the McLaughlin Group.

Consumer reports give goods worse-than-average ratings - the equivalent of D - unless they come from Germany or Japan.

Men and women have gotten into the dubious habit of grading relationships - and if you believe documents like the Ann Landers column, an A is as rare as a crocus in November.

Nowhere can the inclination toward harsh grading be more sharply measured than in the penal code. If tougher sentencing is the mood of the moment - if the death penalty has returned to general favor - can F be far behind?

Still, a sentimental soft touch lurks just behind the tough guy in the American stiff-grader.

Even when the natives are practically mugging one another with criticism, the blackjacks will suddenly fall to the ground and the plaintive cry go up for a kinder, a gentler America.

The politician who poses as being positive, while nastily criticizing his opponent for being a critic, will win nearly every time.

The unofficial motto has always been ``If you can't boost, don't knock.''

Translation: If you can't give an A, don't give an F.

Actually, the F-receivers - often casual risk-takers - do not suffer the way they are supposed to. They remain laughing playboys even when the puritans clamp them in the stocks.

It is the diligent students who count on an A and end up with a B-minus who burn with shame.

Well, who wouldn't like to get an A? And who wouldn't like to give an A?

On life and its A, B, C's - and F's - the aphorist Mignon McLaughlin had the final word. ``I can barely stand constructive praise,'' she wrote. ``I certainly can't stand constructive criticism.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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