Grading on the Wrong Curve

Michael Metzger

Students in Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield’s courses receive two sets of grades. The first set is public and what a student feels entitled to. The second set is a reality check—the private grade a student actually earned. Reality checks for Americans are in the mail this week—IRS tax returns. They remind us that culture carries the day and explains why most American Christians grade their giving on the wrong curve.

Professor Mansfield teaches at the Harvard School of Government. There was a time when the average GPA at Harvard was 2.5 on a 4.0 scale—today it is about 3.5. Over time, Mansfield became fed up fighting with students over their grades. In 2001, he began handing out two sets. The first is what Mansfield calls the “ironic grades” that go on public record and students feel entitled to. It’s full of A’s and A minuses. The second set is based on reality, the more accurate and lower (and private) marks that Mansfield gives students for the same work but which only they and he will ever know.

Mansfield is conceding that a culture of entitlement is carrying the day. Grades started to shoot up nationwide in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1970s, and then started rising again in the 1980s, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a former professor of geophysics at Duke University. “Grades continue to go up regardless of the quality of education.” At elite Brown University, for example, two-thirds of all letter grades given are now A’s. This is all part of a culture of entitlement that has seeped into every level of American education. In one College Board survey of almost a million high-school students, only two percent rated themselves below average in leadership ability. When it came to getting along with others, zero percent rated themselves below average.

Before you go tsk tsk, consider how entitlement has changed the grading curve for tithing. It is true that the more observant members of Christian faith traditions are generally less wealthy but more generous than the majority of their neighbors. Based on this cultural curve, American Christians give themselves high grades for being more generous than their neighbors. Unfortunately, they’re grading on the wrong curve.

In Old Testament times, tithing levels were between 10 and 29 percent of income (the three tithes in the OT are either three descriptions of a 10 percent tithe or three tithes stacked on top on another—10 percent of income, then 10 percent of the remainder, then another 10 percent—amounting to roughly 29 percent). The New Covenant surpasses the Old, so today’s tithing levels should surpass 10 or 29 percent.

Here’s a reality check: American Christians typically give away only 1.5 to 2 percent of their income, writes University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, in his new book, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. Considering that this figure is based on self-reporting, the reality is probably even less. The first two chapters lay out the problem of Americans’ ungenerous behavior, while the third ventures explanations: it’s not that Americans don’t have the money, but that they spend it on luxuries and fail to perceive needs outside their own circles. Smith concludes by calling on pastors to preach better sermons on stewardship and to be clearer about the need to tithe. Good solutions—and the fact that American Christians give slightly more than their neighbors indicates that preaching accomplishes some good. But as Jonathan Swift ruefully reminds us, you can’t reason a man out of a position he never reasoned his way into. American Christians don’t wake up in the morning and reason to themselves: “I’m going to spend money on luxuries and ignore the needs of those outside my own circle.” There is a more foundational reason why American Christians don’t give away more money.

An accurate assessment of human nature indicates that we are fundamentally enculturated beings rather than rational ones. American Christians are therefore going to act more American than Christian. If America’s culture-shaping institutions took a biblical definition of reality seriously, American Christians would fare better. But since most American faith communities don’t take seriously making culture, other definitions of reality—entitlement, in this case—become more influential over time.

The result is that American Christians, acting more American than Christian, give nowhere near the standard set in scripture. Entitlement reframes what were once considered luxuries into necessities today. Americans then spend over 98 percent of their income on what they imagine as being “essential” and entitled to. But you can’t mortgage a home to the hilt, lease the latest vehicle, purchase everything you feel entitled to—and give over 10 or 29 percent of your income. Praying doesn’t change the equation since God doesn’t rejigger reality for irresponsible individuals. Nor is better preaching the total solution, since people can’t give what’s already spoken for. Cultures win because they are antecedent to choice. That’s why the business of making culture is more critical than asking people to choose to give because, “at crucial moments of choice,” Iris Murdoch cautioned, “most of the business of choosing is already over.”

At the end of the day, cultures create what becomes reflexive. “When you give to the needy,” Jesus said, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6:3). When the left hand simply does not know what the right hand is doing, generosity has become reflexive. At this point, the reflexive move for most American Christians is to give themselves high marks for tithing more than their neighbors, lots of A’s and A minuses. God’s kingdom grades on a different curve.

Professor Mansfield recognizes that two sets of grades is not a solution. The difference between the two ought to create dissonance in the minds of a few Harvard students. Perhaps a little dissonance will be created in the minds of American Christians as they complete their tax returns this year. Dissonance might make them demand that their faith community begin taking the business of making culture more seriously.

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12 thoughts on “Grading on the Wrong Curve”

  1. Great blog! Can I get the OT reference for (the three tithes in the OT are either three descriptions of a 10 percent tithe or three tithes stacked on top on another—10 percent of income, then 10 percent of the remainder, then another 10 percent—amounting to roughly 29 percent).

    Thanks!

  2. The cultural value of entitlement must persist because Americans do not believe their own depravity and malevolence. Somehow, we think we are the good people that deserve a good life.

  3. Trent:

    With all due respect, you and I know it’s not true that “the culture of entitlement must persist.” You are right – it does persist because Americans have an inordinate sense of their innate goodness. But that’s partly due to evangelicals evacuating culture. If they got serious about shaping culture, perhaps the culture of entitlement would not persist.

  4. I’ll bite… So who are the culture-shapers, and how do we join/contend? My lazy assumption is “politics” or “media”. But certainly not everyone (or even most) is/are called to these arenas. Is it as simple (not easy) as each of us individually connecting Sunday to Monday? Or does it involve something further… more coordinated?

  5. Mike Metzger

    Dan:

    Coordinated is a very appropriate word. I’d urge you to consider the 7-part series (“Why Institutions Matter”) that I posted last fall. It is overlapping networks of institutions – education, media, business, etc that change the game. Last in line is politics.

    The problem (and the subject of an upcoming column) is that Protestant evangelicals are golfers. We secure our own financial sponsors and play our own individual games. It’s “us against the field.” Unfortunately, changing culture is played on the gridiron. It’s a team game. But that’s grist for a future mill. The point is, you are correct. But Protestants doth protest too much – and fail to build networks with leaders and institutions in the wider world that could change the game.

    One last note: Even when Christian do build partnerships, it is generally with other believers, creating “Christian” enterprises that, more often than not, don’t resonate with the wider world. Hence, “Christian artist colonies,” for example, are safely ignored by artists who are influential in the wider world.

    All that to say, “coordinated” is a great word – but “coordinated” with whom?

  6. I was hoping to get a solid answer on precisely what it is you calculate the 10-29% . Is it on what you earn or on what is left over after the Feds and states take their bite. I recall some biblical reference on the first fruits so maybe that will help with my answer. On the other hand, did the church 3,000 years ago do more for the community than it now does and did the governments way back when take less taxes as a percentage of income than they now do ?

  7. George:

    To the best of my knowledge, first fruits are what you make before anyone else gets their hand on it. Regarding taxation, there are periods of higher and lower rates in history. There are also periods when the church did more for the community – when it was more influential – and when it did less. history is always messy.

  8. I want to piggyback on what George mentioned – why berate the Church today? The Jewish community in the OT WAS the government. Today, most Americans are taxed involuntarily. So anything they give is on top of that. We don’t live off of 98% of what we make. Besides, the money OT folks gave covered not only the temple staff and upkeep, but presumably the joint meals that everyone ate several times a year. It’s an apple/oranges comparison.

  9. Mike,

    As always great stuff! I had the same question that Dan Smith did, thanks for your answer and can’t wait to read about the golfers…

    ALSO… you may have already seen it, but if not there’s an incredible review available on “Flawed Self-Assessment.*” Dunning et al., summarize the Psychology research in a very enlightening and entertaining way, showing that people are spectacularly bad at self evaluation. And if you have any doubt after reading the article, just watch some American Idol auditions on YouTube.

    * D. Dunning et al., Psycholog. Sci. Pub. Interest, 5:69-106, 2004.

    http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/pspi/pspi5_3.pdf

  10. Thanks for your thoughts Mike. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for the past few years. This entry comes at a good time in my life.
    I just finished Tom Sine’s “The New Conspirators” and attended InterVarsity’s Urbana conference. They have been a great combination in a number of ways; specifically giving.
    One idea from both influences that has shaped me is the “graduated tithe”. People have set themselves a standard of living where they’re able to live well. Anything else they make, they give away. As their income increases, they remain at the same standard of living but increase giving. This idea as well as others, such as communal living and food co-ops have challenged my cultural assumptions.
    I think if we want to change the culture we have to change the assumptions and questions. We have to combat the spirit of entitlement by remembering who it belongs to in the first place. We have to stop asking “How much is enough?” and start asking “How can I give more?”

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