I assume we are well familiar with the phenomenon of grade inflation. Students these days expect good grades, and usually get them. My experiences at several different universities suggest that in most courses, the average final grade is a B- or higher. My experience also suggests that this is often the result of instructors "going easy" on their students. For instance, a bad philosophy paper may be a given something like B- or C+, and only spectacularly bad papers are given a C or lower.
I have long been of the belief that we do our students no favors by going easy on them -- that it's an easy way out that some people choose to get good student reviews. I want to suggest, however, that not all forms of "grade inflation" are bad, and that there are forms of it that are probably morally and educationally desirable. Allow me to explain.
I am a brutal grader. I often find myself having to hand back a first batch of term-papers where the average grade is a C, and where about 40% of students received a CD or D. As usual, I expect a fair amount of student outrage about this -- though I've learned how to mitigate this a bit by showing them a couple of brief clips from the Karate Kid illustrating how good teachers need to challenge their students to fail, so that they can improve succeed in the end. At the same time, I've developed a standing policy in my courses of allowing students to rewrite their papers as many times as they wish (I have very small class sizes). The end-result of this practice is that most students end up doing very well in my courses. Because they don't want a D, almost all of them actually spend a great deal of time and energy writing and rewriting their papers -- something that leads to pretty uniformly high grades in my courses.
Notice that there is a kind of grade inflation here. I work very hard to ensure that as many of my students succeed in my courses, by affording them ample opportunities to improve. But is this bad? By my lights, the most traditional model of teaching is to "separate good from bad students." Good students should receive A's and bad students lower grades. But this is not how I see my task as a teacher, and indeed, I think there is something a bit off about it. I want every student of mine to leave my classes having the ability to write a decent, if not good, philosophy paper. I want to educate all of them well, not just some of them--and I think that if one sets up the incentives right, one can enable most of one's students to succeed pretty well. Yet, of course, the end-result of this can look like a kind of "grade inflation." Most of my students get pretty good grades in the end, while doing so in a way that still distinguishes good and great students from average ones (I give out very few A's).
I have been told many times (though not at my current institution), for instance, that the average grade in one's courses "should" be a low B or high C. But I just don't see a justification for this. If 50% of my students leave my course doing B-/C+ work, that strikes me as a bad thing. It means I've failed to get most of my students to do very good work! So, then, is "grade inflation" necessarily a bad thing, or are only certain forms of it--forms that don't actually ask much of students, and don't require them to actually achieve high standards--bad?