The Cost of an Easy A

Struggling in a challenging class isn’t foreign to many of us, but teachers are not usually the ones to blame. And even if they were, they rarely face consequence. This wasn’t the case at New York University, where Professor Maitland Jones Jr. was fired this summer after 82 of his 350 students signed a petition complaining that his organic chemistry class was “too hard”. While organic chemistry has always been notorious for its extreme difficulty, students also blamed Jones for failing “to make students’ learning and well-being a priority,” according to The Times

The petition has not been made publicly available yet, but the high withdrawal rate and low grades of the class are the students’s main concern. They cite not offering extra credit, reducing the number of midterms from three to two, reducing Zoom access to lectures for those absent and teaching with a ‘condescending and demanding tone’ as further reasons for complaint. 

However, contrary to what the students noted, Jones said that he had even made the tests easier, yet grades continue to drop, and attendance is practically nonexistent. According to NYU News, Jones elaborates that “There seems to be a strong consensus among teachers that we continue to ask less and less of our students. In chemistry 226, we, too, have 30 percent attendance in the lecture, silent students, empty office hours and plummeting grades on ever-easier exams”.  

The 84 year old professor, who has taught at NYU for fifteen years, has gained respect and recognition for reshaping how organic chemistry is taught and writing a widely-used organic chemistry textbook. He is considered as one of the most prominent members of his field, and was teaching at Princeton prior to his time at NYU. 

It’s important to remember that these students did not call for the firing of Jones. The petition simply urged for more resources and support for the students. However, NYU administrators terminated Jones’ yearly contract on the basis that he “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty”, as reported by The Times. Furthermore, the University gave students an opportunity to withdraw from the course retroactively, effectively erasing the grade they had in the class. 

Catering towards the students’ wants like this is ultimately going to do them more harm than good. Appealing to student demand and commodifying education has become a trend among educational institutes due to the ever-increasing tuition costs students pay. While hearing out and accommodating students’ needs is important, it should not come at the cost of reducing rigor or standards that will impact the quality of future employees.

Weeder classes, typically an introductory level course intentionally highly rigorous, are meant to reduce the amount of people in a high-demand major. Organic Chemistry is one of those, and serves to filter out those in the premed track. Therefore, Jones’ class is simply doing its job — it’s better to switch to a different career path as a sophomore in college than flunk out of medical school.

Even more, due to the pandemic, this issue has worsened significantly: “This cohort of students is the victim of three years of COVID-19 ‘learning,’” Jones wrote. “They not only don’t know how to study, many do not seem to even know that they should study.” Furthermore, Jones’ firing has inadvertently pushed other teachers to strive for the best possible student evaluations at the cost of challenging students intellectually and academically, effectively reducing standards of other classes and fields. 

Lowering the standards for students who “don’t know how to study” or barely attend lectures is unfair for both the teachers and the rest of society. If any profession should require rigorous amounts of studying, it would be medicine, as doctors literally have peoples’ lives in their hands. Before, since standards for those attending medical school were so high, it was practically guaranteed that those students were the best and brightest of that generation and had potential to succeed. 

By maintaining the high standards we had, many will fail— but that’s the point. It is much more beneficial to society for students to realize they are not suitable for the rigorous studying that is expected of doctors in those weeder classes than to lower the standards and give these students a false sense of hope that they will succeed in the medical field. Would you really want an under-qualified student to be treating you or your family? Is it right to sacrifice merit in the name of lower quality education that prioritizes students’ convenience? 

The firing of Professor Jones could be perceived as a wake-up call to address the flaws in our education system, or it could be an early sign of a future crisis for the American healthcare system. By choosing to carelessly lower the bar instead of getting students extra help, NYU has made the latter much more likely.