When Grades Didn’t Matter

Paul Nitze would have made a terrible Emory student. While he was a student at Harvard (Mass.), he decided to skip the final exam for his economics class so that he could attend a party in Rhode Island. He received a zero and failed the class. When asked about it later, he said, “In those days, grades didn’t count. Harvard was more like a European university. You just tried to absorb wisdom.”

Nitze went on to serve as U.S. deputy secretary of defense, Scretary of the navy and to found the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University (Md.). He became an important member of the group of foreign policy experts known as the “Wise Men.”

It seems impossible that a student who skipped a final exam to party would go on to achieve such incredible success. But the education Nitze received is very different than the education modern students receive. College taught him how to belong, not just how to study. He was able to find success in his adult life because he was the product of a strong, united community that instilled in him the confidence and worldliness that success requires. Of course, grades were an important aspect of college life, but there were many other aspects that were just as important. Inheriting the tradition he did allowed him to overcome his academic flaws.

Nitze graduated from Harvard in 1928. Since then, the definition of what it means to attend college and obtain an education has changed significantly. College has become more transactional. Grades and test scores are how people judge themselves now. Universities have observed their students become less focused on helping others and more focused on gaining financial security. There is an abundance of research that shows that today, “external measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.”

Of course, colleges in the past had problems that we have thankfully left behind, most notably how exclusive and lacking in diversity they were. American universities have progressed significantly in many incredible ways: we are now more open and have made significant steps towards ending institutional discrimination. But over the years, we lost some of the most important aspects of the college experience.

Emory is one of the many colleges that has experienced this loss. For example, Wonderful Wednesday originally meant that no classes were held on Wednesday, a scenario that is difficult to imagine now given the school’s strong focus on academics. Emory Historian Gary Hauk told me, “From 1967 until 1982, the University scheduled no college classes on Wednesdays in order to give students a chance to study, catch-up on assignments or whatever. I gather from those who lived through those years that it was like having two weekends each week.”

The preamble of the University’s bylaws states Emory’s mission to shape not only students’ minds, but also their hearts and souls. In his book A Legacy of Heart and Mind: Emory Since 1836, Hauk says that “[this] philosophy has shaped a university that aims to nurture moral imagination as well as critical intellect and aesthetic judgment.”

The communal aspect of college is a terrible thing to have lost. It is this aspect that instilled upon students the unshakeable confidence that can only come from a genuine sense of belonging. As students have become more focused on their grades and their job prospects and embraced the transactional side of college, they have lost a sense of purpose. Students today are less resilient and less confident. In recent years, anxiety rates for college students have risen precipitously, displacing depression as the most common mental illness found on a college campus.

The changing nature of college is not a result of any specific policy on the part of Emory or any other school; it is a consequence of our time. To state the obvious, both getting into college and obtaining a job upon graduation has become significantly more competitive.

But mostly, this phenomenon is a result of the fact that we have lost our desire for large institutions to provide us with a sense of belonging. In Nitze’s day, one attended Harvard with an expectation and a desire to be shaped. Students did not go to stand out; they went to fit in. Some of the era’s great original thinkers found conforming incredibly difficult, the most notable example being Winston Churchill, who was an unmitigated disaster as a high school student.

Our generation is more focused on individual success than previous generations. It is more difficult for Emory to instill a sense of belonging upon all of its students, because its student body is increasingly diverse, polarized and lacks the desire to be shaped. We desperately want to be ourselves, and we desperately want to prove ourselves superior to our peers. In an age where individual identity is all-important, the old style of schooling is destined to lose prominence. In our modern era, forcing students into a box is destined to fail.

The correct course of action for Emory to take is to create an environment that encourages students to form their own small communities. Small communities that unite people have historically given young people the same benefits as large ones, and are the only way to provide students with the sense of belonging that Nitze had.

Dean Acheson, arguably the most influential secretary of state in the 20th century, did not fit in at Groton, his high school. He was ruthlessly bullied. He did fit in at Residency 25, a small working outpost that Groton boys were assigned to by Groton as part of their schooling.  His situation is an excellent example of the amazing effects that small, close-knit communities can have on a person.

Reflecting on his time at Residency 25, Acheson eloquently summarized the power that a small community can have on an individualistic young person. He wrote, “These men had given me new eagerness for experience. … They had restored to me a priceless possession, joy in life. Never again was I to lose it or doubt it.”

Duncan Cock Foster is a College senior from Seattle, Washington