When I graduated high school and started college, I considered myself a smart kid. Why? Because I had As. The As gave me power, self-worth and a feeling of immense competency. I could perform well academically and, up until now, my good grades had been the most obvious measure of success. Good grades lined up on my report cards like Meryl Streep’s shelf of Oscars. Like her large collection of little golden men, my As represented recognition and talent–a clear indicator of my intelligence and my value as a student.
As I moved forward in my academic career as a double major in Political Science and International Studies, I took challenging classes. Instead of spitting back information for a multiple choice exam, I had to analyze material to create arguments and recommendations for controversial issues. Long research papers and group projects meant I now had to wander through the perplexing Narnia of subjective college grading.
In the second semester of my junior year, I took an upper level seminar on the social implications of humanitarianism in Africa. This class threw me into something I knew very little about, and I found that exciting. I also filled three requirements for my majors with this class, which was more valuable than a non-stale bagel in the dining hall. The classroom overflowed with students, and the nerd in me was excited to work with people who shared my enthusiasm. However, this was too precious of a moment. A rose-colored dream turned into a nightmare the second the professor passed around the syllabus.
The instructor had impressive credentials and rushed into the first class straight from giving a lecture series at Yale. As she dictated the syllabus like Napoleon’s marching orders (did she blink? I don’t think she did), we learned our major assignments were based off of group work–group reading responses, two group presentations and a massive group research paper. This amount of group work was highly unusual for a social science class. Everyone grumbled as she assigned random groups and told us to have our first responses, from 150 pages of reading, ready by the next class.
Within the next two weeks, the class enrollment dropped by 50 percent. Inevitably, I switched groups because my group members had dropped me faster than Jabrill Peppers’ fumble return conversions. They believed getting an A in a class like this would be impossible. Their negative vibes haunted me through the rest of the course. Essays were returned with an average of a C and presentations were shredded with Tolstoy-length rubrics. An A on my transcript from this class looked less likely than Bernie Sanders’ chances of winning the primary. And, like Sanders’ campaign, my GPA took a fall from the votes it contributed.
I should’ve listened to everyone else and just dropped the class. A smart person would have dropped the course. A really smart person would have taken the class and gotten an A. The smart people wouldn’t jeopardize their college career and future academic accolades for some nerdy lust over a new topic.
Then one week we read Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid. Moyo argued that humanitarian aid increased Africa’s dependence on western powers, who reveled in the influence and economic resources they gained. After immersing myself in the book and walking around the next day like a zombie, I realized something I actually knew all along. College isn’t about As as much as it’s about learning. This class challenged me. If I dropped the class out of fear of doing poorly, then I would’ve missed out on expanding my knowledge of an important political and social issue. I’m a better poli-sci student because I stuck through the class, but the grade didn’t reflect my growth at all.
Even after being defeated by my less-than-smart-student grade, I took another class on the politics of humanitarian aid. I also took an internship with a refugee assistance agency to learn even more about non-profit and humanitarian work. I had so many questions about how aid operates on different planes, and I discovered in this class, one most would consider a failure, a passion for this field of work.
I learned a lot about humanitarianism in this class, and I gained a new perspective about a field I hadn’t previously considered. The most important lesson, though, was the one I learned beyond the readings and essay rubrics. I realized that receiving As meant that I knew the answers. That’s it. Intelligence involves searching for new solutions, not repeating old ones. Smart people ask questions and throw themselves into the tough, uncomfortable and the unsolvable situations. Smart people often do get As, but it’s not the As that signify their intelligence. The As are a mere byproduct that often comes from these explorations, and the trophy holds no value. I realized that the relationship between grades and intelligence is really no different than the relationship between actors and the Academy–Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t untalented because he hadn’t received an Oscar. And like DiCaprio, I can go on to have a very successful career with or without the awards of A’s.