Opinion | What Grade Would You Give Donald Trump?
“There are only two grades to get,” goes the ancient snark, “A or F. Anything else, it’s as if you aren’t really trying.”
As I wind up the semester at Barnard this week, I’m thinking about my students’ final grades: What those grades mean, and what they tell us — or fail to tell us — about a young person’s future. Most of my students are going to do well in the classes they took with me, as well they should; they worked hard.
But it’s hard to know whether good grades predict success.
Donald Trump, of course, spent part of the 2016 campaign criticizing Barack Obama for being a terrible student, wondering aloud why the man had been admitted to Columbia and Harvard. He demanded — climbing upon his high pony — that Mr. Obama release his transcripts. Mr. Obama didn’t.
Then, last February, we learned that Mr. Trump’s former attack dog, Michael Cohen, had written letters to the Wharton School at Penn and to the College Board, threatening legal action if they released the president’s college transcripts or his SATs. You know, like if they did the exact same thing Mr. Trump had demanded of Mr. Obama.
The president has claimed he graduated first in his class at Wharton, which is — prepare yourself for a shock — an easily documented lie. He graduated without honors at Wharton, which means his grade point average in 1968 was probably less than 3.4 — a B, in fact. The gentleman’s failure.
Lots of successful people have been terrible students, of course, including a roster of all-star dropouts: Steve Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, Elton John.
Like our president, I failed to graduate with honors back in 1980, when I took my leave of Wesleyan. Still, I thought well enough of myself to apply to Columbia’s graduate journalism school, which wasted no time in rejecting me. I would like to say I feel a sense of personal vindication now that I have an endowed professorship at one of Columbia’s affiliated institutions. But mostly it’s just embarrassing.
The admissions office at Columbia was not wrong to reject me back then, either. I seem to recall writing my application one night in October after a Grateful Dead show at the New Haven Coliseum. I got a ride home from the concert in the back of someone’s pickup truck, lying on my back, looking up at the stars. It occurred to me that if I applied to grad school that very night that I’d be a sure bet, given the level of intellectual rarefaction that I had achieved.
But in this I was mistaken.
My students’ grades this semester will be higher, on average, than the ones my peers and I earned 40 years ago at Wesleyan. In this, some critics will see evidence of the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” the unsettling fact that all of our children now appear to be well above average. A recent survey of Harvard seniors reported that more than half had a G.P.A. of 3.7, or better than an A minus.
This is supposed to be a tremendous scandal, although I will humbly suggest that one small reason some grades are higher now is that students have gotten smarter.
Conservatives, of course, like to shake their fists in the air about grade inflation, seeing in the abundance of A’s and B’s more evidence that our society is in decline. Maybe after the Trump administration does away with marriage equality, abortion access, asylum for immigrants, civil rights, affordable health care, civil discourse and solar power, it can get to work bringing back C’s and Ds.
When I was in college, there were two different kinds of flops: an F, which meant you’d failed, and an E (yes, some schools gave E’s), which was a “good failure.” My future wife, Deirdre, in fact, managed to get an E in a course she took titled “Self-Paced Calculus.” She asked her resident adviser what it meant that she’d gotten an E, and he replied, “It means you did all the work and you tried really hard and really showed dedication but you failed anyway.” Later, she had to explain this to her mother, who was not exactly impressed by this subtlety.
Which brings us back to the president and his days at Wharton. What was it that prevented the man from graduating with honors, one wonders. Was his G.P.A. that low? Was he bad at statistics, like measuring crowd size? Is it possible they refused to give him honors because, even then, they had reservations about his performance in Self-Paced Narcissism?
Here’s a hint: If you fail at governance because the issues we face are incredibly complex, well, that’s an E, a good failure. But if you simply don’t care? And see no difference between a lie and the truth? Well, that’s an F, the same grade you might give a businessman if he’d lost more money, year after year, than any other American taxpayer.
You’d think anyone failing on such a gargantuan scale would never amount to anything. But you’d be wrong. As Bob Dylan — who left the University of Minnesota, and his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, after one undistinguished year — observed: “Nothing succeeds like failure. And failure’s no success at all.”
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Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel “Long Black Veil.” @JennyBoylan
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