Give us a reason to be real students at Dartmouth.

by John Ejiogu | 4/21/23 3:00am

Wow! That class has a B+ median. I mean, I’m sure it’s a great class, but I can’t risk being below the median!

Does that sound familiar to you? I bet it does. I bet you’ve heard the word “median” probably a lot more than your ears and mind can take here at Dartmouth. But this was not always the case. In 1994, the faculty voted the median to be noted on each student’s transcript. As if that was not enough, they added a count of the number of times a student was at or below the median to students’ transcripts as well. Now, if you have taken any sort of math or statistics class, you’d know that the median is a measure of the middle and similar to an average.

So, what does its notation on our transcripts represent? To students, to employers, to graduate schools, to parents, etc., this notation is a lifetime reminder of how many times a student was merely mediocre! Was below half their peers! Was just okay! You may say that in a similar vein, the number of times a student was above the median is also included on the transcript. But, I can’t help but wonder, what’s the point? Are we being taught how to consistently and toxically compare ourselves to each other? Are we being taught that our successes are linked to the failures of others? And what does this indelible comparative statistic stamped to the record of at least four years of our lives do to us?

I think I speak not only for myself, but for the vast majority of my peers here at Dartmouth, when I say these medians are simply not helpful.

The first and probably most obvious evil is that the median notation significantly debases learning — doing so in two main ways. First, it discourages students from enrolling in classes that interest them and have the potential to challenge them. Second, it discourages academic collaboration and sometimes even facilitates insincere collaborations and friendships. Dartmouth tends to admit curious and high achieving students who want to put their best into their academics and learning experience. But what happens when your best is constantly compared to the best of an entire class of high-achieving people? You start looking for the best way to be better than others instead of the best ways to further your genuine interests, both in your academic and extracurricular activities. The emotional toll it takes can best be described as immense. You become feverishly competitive. You start forming transactional relationships with friends and favor-seeking relationships with faculty. You take a midterm and immediately afterwards forget everything that you learned, all vacuumed away as you rush onto whatever is next. After a full term of learning — or after four years of study — you feel almost empty. You’ve learned nothing but that you get gratification from being better than your peers, and you feel ashamed for performing worse than your peers. You’ve learned how to avoid challenges and how to take the easy way out. You’ve forgotten how to truly learn.

But that’s not all.

Imagine you’re a Dartmouth student, and you’ve spent four years constantly worried about being above the median in all your courses. Whenever you are, you feel like you’ve succeeded and whenever you’re not, you feel like you’ve failed. Then, you graduate from Dartmouth and go into the world. What happens when your colleague gets promoted at work — and you don’t — or when your friend gets into a happy relationship — and you’re not in one? What happens to your mental health? It risks deterioration. You might even spiral into depression. Why? Because for four years of a very formative period in your life, you were exposed to a system that rewards you for being better than everyone else. Now, you may perhaps get therapy. You may work on changing this toxic mindset. But it may take some time, and time is precious. We never get back our lost time. But that’s the path this median notation leads down. It affects our mental health and emotional maturity well beyond our time here in college.

Now onto the faculty. What happens when students who have absolutely no interest in your class sign up for it because the median is an A? What happens when students constantly run away from your class because the median is low, and to do well on it, they may need to have some external advantage, such as prior experience or extra tutoring resources — things not everyone can afford? What becomes the point of teaching? You begin to teach students who do not really want to learn because they are so focused on trying to be above the median.

I could go on and on about the evils of this median notation. Between making a mess of the purpose of learning, negatively affecting students’ mental health and emotional maturity and taking away the meaning from a teaching career, it does no one any good in the grand scheme of things.

I think it’s high time we called a spade a spade, acknowledged the evils of this notation in the present, put an end to this disruptor of the learning process and give us students, the faculty — give everyone — a real reason to attend this institution of higher education.

John C. Ejiogu is a member of the Class of 2023 and studies economics with minors in chemistry and music. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

The Dartmouth welcomes guest columns. We request that guest columns be the original work of the submitter. Submissions may be sent to both opinion@thedartmouth.com and editor@thedartmouth.com. Submissions will receive a response within three business days.