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The Case for Strictness over Leniency

A now-undervalued value.

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Increasingly, we venerate leniency over strictness, for example, the “kindly” boss, judge, spouse, or teacher. Students routinely give better evaluations to easy-grading professors. We dislike managers who reject most employee excuses.

I’m certainly not calling for Dickensian cruelty but at the risk of seeming hyperbolic, I believe the trend to replacing strictness with leniency is a core cause of America’s decline.

In 1960, the most common grade was C. Now it’s A, with A’s three times as frequent as in 1960. And there’s no evidence that’s because students are getting smarter — For example, SAT performance has slightly declined.

Why is grade inflation so concerning?

Mediocre students who, last-minute, slapped together a paper and got a B or even an A, are thus rewarded for sloth and so are more likely to be lazy in the future, including in their work and personal life, where slipshodness is less likely to be rewarded.

Those mediocre “A” students become indistinguishable from legitimate A students, making it more difficult for employers to hire the best applicants. Of course, GPA is only one data point, but grade inflation thus saddles employees with weaker coworkers, resulting in all employees not feeling proud of where they work and it being a place with weak employees turn out worse products and services, which hurts customers. That also hurts shareholders, not just the media-trumpeted fat cats, but the psychologists, teachers, plumbers, etc. who are investing their hard-earned money in mutual funds in hopes of saving for their kids’ college, their retirement, etc.

The leniency also makes companies and even nonprofits less competitive with organizations overseas that have higher standards, resulting in American companies going out of business, with the associated loss of jobs and contributions to the economy and tax base.

Workplace managers and executives also are guilty of “grade inflation.” When bosses give satisfactory evaluations of, let alone retain, marginal-or-worse work and employees, the aforementioned ramifications accrue.

The teacher who tolerates even mild misbehavior is likely to have it metastasize to great detriment. Long ago, I was a teacher. I started out thinking that leniency was wiser than strictness. So I ignored when, for example, a child whispered to a classmate while I was talking. But that quickly conveyed to classmates that kids could get away with misbehavior and so classroom behavior declined until it was impossible to control the class without my yelling, which is but a short-term fix. I soon learned that zero-tolerance is, in the end, more loving — The first whisper would get a schoomarmy look from me. I also explained to the class that my strictness was not to be mean but because I cared about kids: I want them to learn, to feel proud of being in the class, and when well behaved, we could do things impossible in a poorly behaved class. As a result, we ended up doing things like my rewriting the Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz, and Oliver into period-long versions that we performed for the entire school, to the benefit of my students, their parents, and all the school’s students.

Leniency at home too is unwise. For example, the spouse who promised to do the dishes but “forgot,” is more likely to “forget” more often. The person who gives another chance to a domestic partner who physically or psychologically abuses is more likely to have it continue, indeed worsen. Tantruming kids who get attention let alone get their way, are likely to tantrum more.

I certainly am not advocating corporal punishment but rather, am urging ignoring or expressing disappointment in bad behavior, or in the case of domestic physical or psychological abuse, getting help or leaving the relationship.

It’s a mistake to tolerate bad behavior from friends, for example, the date who fails to call when promised, or even the running partner who’s late. Perhaps after one warning, it’s wise to cut your losses and find people who are more respectful of you.

Lenient judges, in putting criminals back on the street faster, prioritize “kindness” to felons over protecting the public — witness the 68% 3-year recidivism rate.

That’s not a mere statistic. It reflects the countless human beings who are victims suffering the effects of violent crime. Even a victim of a car break-in let alone a home invasion feels not just the financial loss but the psychological pain of having been invaded.

Lenient sentences for drug dealers too protects the criminal at the expense of innocent people — Dealers ruin countless lives, not just of the drug users but their families, coworkers, and the victims of vehicle accidents.

Of course, a lenient sentence provides the criminal with only a short-term feel-good. S/he feels good about getting off easy but is more likely to commit crime than if s/he knew s/he would face a harsh sentence.

Also, lenient sentencing sends a message to the public that we value the criminal more than law-abiding citizens’ safety. I’ve seen so many pro-criminal, “prisoner-rights,” media articles and segments: calls for higher-quality jails, shorter sentences, and so many profiles of the wrongly-convicted, implying that’s far more common than it really is. Indeed only 45 percent of violent crimes even result in an arrest, far fewer in a conviction. Is a society really better for devoting so much positive attention to criminals rather than say to, medical researchers who toil in anonymity to try to save lives, or even to the average person who is working hard, even struggling, to stay in the middle class?

The takeaway

Truly, we would be wise to venerate high-standards, strict professors, teachers, judges, friends, and family members over grade-inflating professors, “nice” teachers, “tolerant employers, “chill” friends, and lenient judges. Doing so would improve our individual lives and create a society we can feel proud to be a part of.

I ad lib on this topic on YouTube.

This is part of a series on undervalued values.