Once one gives in and joins a race to the bottom like this, it becomes very difficult not to see it through until the end. When you replace academic and pedagogical values with the drive to separate students’ parents from their money while giving the students (and society) much less in return, you change the students’ expectations and the disciplinary culture in ways that quickly become hard to alter.
The only thing that safeguards what remains of worthwhile undergraduate education is the refusal of some of us to keep dumbing down our standards to win these kinds of races. There will always be ways to dumb things down, and it will always be profitable to do so if the name of the game is to attract students by lessening the amount they have to do. But, despite the fact that entering college students are worse-prepared than ever, they do less and less work in an average week the longer this goes on. Throwing up our hands in philosophy and getting with the race to the bottom will accelerate that trend.
Already, I see many students taking the highest number of courses allowed despite the fact that they are working so many hours outside of school, and socializing, that they spend only a few minutes per week outside of class on any of their courses (by their own admission), and spend almost all their time in class on their computers and phones, paying little to no attention to what is going on around them. Some of the more unprincipled deans and higher administrators would love it if we all found ways to give those students As without a quibble: if enough schools did it, then the accreditation boards could be persuaded that the new batch of students can handle even more courses at once, and the colleges and universities could shake even more money out of the students’ pockets for nothing, and more quickly. Meanwhile, it would be easier to handle the coursework, which would allow entrance requirements while to be dropped, which in turn would allow the school boards to dumb down their curricula for similar reasons still boasting record-high college admission rates. This, in turn, would lead to even worse-prepared students in our classes at university (there is no bottom), and the cycle would continue and accelerate. The end result will not be good for civilization or for us.
The best solutions for the problem involve strong and uncomfortable pressure against those people, departments, and disciplines that would dumb down their standards in pursuit of their lucre and unprofessionalism.
If we can’t get that, we should make what we can in a principled manner. Departments have the power to enforce their own anti-grade-inflation standards in many ways, and they should do this.
Some students may choose to abandon their long-term interests in favor of some other departments that offer easy As. Let them go! Those students are, in essence, dupes. They are willing to blow their one big chance to develop their intellect and habits on fluff for the benefit of a few years’ leisure. But what they get out of it is a sham: a degree that will not do much to help them in the fifty-odd years of work ahead of them (just to focus on work for the moment). There are always serious students to be found who want to make the most of their time at college. The more we can cultivate and cater to them, the more we will attract the right kind of students while developing an undergraduate culture among our majors that can otherwise be lost. And the existing majors will take courses with newer students, and the influence will rub off.
It’s a longer game, but ultimately a more successful one. And if enough of us stand back and do it while other disciplines join the race to the bottom, the reputation of a major philosophy will continue to grow among employers and advanced programs while the reputations of other majors sink into ridiculousness.