The Bum’s B. A worked like this: four students (preferably male) share an apartment on campus and compete to see who can do the least work possible and still pass his year. Independent observers would tabulate relative idleness; hidden cameras would make sure no secret cramming was going on. Other subtleties: any efforts in pursuit of academic success would count against you, but not labour in pursuit of idleness — e.g., if you borrowed “a girl’s notes,” the reading of those notes would count as actual work, but the borrowing wouldn’t. Plus you could recoup the studying penalty by going to a movie, say, or getting drunk the night before an exam. The more we talked, the more enthusiastic we got.
“We can’t do it till I graduate, though,” my son said. “No, till they mail me my diploma.”
The university would have to be in on it, of course, I said. As a kind of sociology experiment.
He gave me a look. He was right, I conceded; if they knew, they’d probably just flunk out everybody in the apartment.
His look grew stranger. “What are you talking about? Nobody flunks out at McGill.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. “Come again?”
“I don’t know anybody who’s ever flunked out of McGill. Dropped out, sure, but not flunked out. They don’t let you flunk. They put you on probation, or give you extra time, or let you take your degree in six years instead of four. I know one guy who took seven years. That’s even better for them — more money.”
“But why would a university do that?”
“The tuition money and the government funding. Plus they’ve got a ton of students coming from the States they make a fortune from. They don’t want them thinking there’s a risk that they’ll get thrown out if they fail.”
“But I thought the whole thing with McGill was the high standards,” I said. (I may have been getting shrill.) “How hard it was to get into.”
“Right. Hard to get into. Harder to get kicked out of.” He looked at me. “Seriously, I can’t think of anyone who ever flunked out.”
Breakfast and the conversation frittered away at that point, but I couldn’t shake the sense of scandal. It wasn’t just that this derailed our reality show (if nobody flunked, how could you pick a winner? ), or the thousands of dollars we’d spent ourselves sending him to the “Harvard of the North.” It was the larger principle involved. If it was impossible to fail, what did passing amount to?
Not that I was an innocent. I’d read Ivory Tower Blues, by James Côté and Anton Allahar, two professors at the University of Western Ontario who had chronicled what they dubbed the crisis of “credentialism” at Canadian and American schools. They’d argued that the new sense of entitlement among undergraduates, unchallenged by college administrations, had resulted in a proliferation of empty degrees, inflated grades, and professors cowed by student evaluations (not to mention calls from parents and threatened lawsuits) into easy marking and buying cheese Danishes for their classes. I knew about David Weale, the University of Prince Edward Island history prof who, facing an overcrowded class, had promised students a 70 percent grade if they agreed not to show up or do any coursework at all. (Weale had twenty takers, and was subsequently “asked” to resign by the upei administration.) I knew that Côté himself had tried the same experiment at Western and found that guaranteeing students a mark of 80 percent was enough to convince virtually his whole class to walk out. And I was aware that these stories were viewed as symptoms of something deeper in the culture — a reluctance to judge today’s students negatively, to have them fail, which meant that they were being “deprived” of an important life lesson in dealing with the kind of setbacks they would eventually have to face. But I’d always thought that all this breast-beating over the “failure to fail” was largely metaphorical. I never thought it meant no one flunked out anymore.
The next morning, I sent out a simple query to every person under thirty on my email list, some fifty people: did they know anyone, or know anyone who knew anyone, out of all the students enrolled in Canadian universities (815,000 in total) who had ever flunked out? By that afternoon, I had nine answers, all remarkably consistent. The first came from the son of a friend, who had graduated from the University of Manitoba the year before and was now living in Winnipeg with a fellow graduate. “Shannon and I are stumped. It’s weird. No one comes to mind right away. We’ll ask around and let you know if we can find anyone.” The second email was from a fourth-year phys. ed. student at Waterloo. “At lunch I told a lot of my friends about your email. We all know kids who have taken extra time to graduate, and who have goofed off to the point of doing zero work, and of course some who’ve dropped out. But nobody who was actually told to leave.” The third email was from my niece, a third-year psychology major at York University: “It is very difficult to get kicked out of university. They put you on academic probation and continue to take your money. I do know one kid who took off a year because of the situation. But he didn’t flunk out.”