Honoring the C Student

A bygone film called The Paper Chase captivated university audiences at a time that stood between eras, the yet unnamed divide between classical learning and the post-modern shift.  The equivalent audio moment was the transition between the soul of Marvin Gaye and the disco of Barry White. Students today, occasionally and curiously, show a fondness, more like an unlived nostalgia for the 1970s, the period of The Paper Chase; this is similar, I suppose, to those students of the ’70s becoming attached to Bogart and memorizing all the scenes in Casablanca.

The Paper Chase is about the first-year grind at Harvard Law School. It portrayed a sharp conflict of values in its storyline that stretched apart two indomitable personalities also held in thrall ambiguously, like the mongoose and cobra. The stage is set as a clash of wills between the intimidating Professor Charles W. Kingsfield and his unsubmissive, soul-searching student, James Hart.

At another graduate school, close to the one represented in the movie, and certainly in the exact period of the story and in an identical lecture hall, I was the student of a real-life Professor Kingsfield. George Huntston Williams was a world-renowned historian of extraordinary range and genius. Professor Williams looked more “Kingsfield” than actor John Houseman. He had a leonine head, a dependably florid face, piercing eyes of cobalt beams, and the most impressive shock of white hair. His lectures were best when he misplaced his glasses, thus dispatching the day’s notes to his leather briefcase; then he would “channel” the narrative and interpretation, not just the broad decades of the 16th century, conveniently swept into named brackets such as the Tudor Dynasty. He would describe, instead, the detail of actual years or a specific week in a single year from five centuries ago with a familiarity akin to what his students could easily recollect about a special moment as a sophomore in college.

George Williams taught history in the grand style that no one today, and very few in his day, could do or even attempt. Students regarded him with esteem, wonder and sometimes terror. For a Friday discussion section, always led by an older graduate student in the absence of the professor, I was assigned to give a particular analysis of Williams’s own magisterial scholarship, actually his best-known book. Just as I began my presentation, Professor Williams walked in unexpectedly and took a seat at the seminar table. He listened intently, chin anchored upon his chest, for the next 20 minutes, never saying a word.

There were, naturally, questions posed, difficult, perhaps impossible to touch or grasp his meaning. I survived, but years later I trembled to read a tribute that recalled for me that anxious moment—“as an academic unaware of any limits to his own scholarship, he seemingly could not comprehend that others, including his colleagues, might not know as much as he did.”

George Williams and I eventually became friends, though he sometimes called me by my middle name. I think he preferred it because the name is Welsh, which he could pronounce in that language (and I couldn’t). 

We had something else in common. He was also a Laurentian, graduating in 1936. After his Canton years he studied in Munich, Paris and Strasbourg, becoming fluent in several languages, then earned an American doctorate and began his brilliant academic career, culminating in being named the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, the oldest endowed chair in America.

And then, he revealed one day a detail of his early life that has stayed with me ever since as a significant parable. George Huntston Williams was only a C student at St. Lawrence.

The grade of C is not yet extinct, but it has become rare. The dean at Harvard College reported that the median student grade was A-. At Yale, 62% of the grades are in the A range. It’s much the same at Princeton, where 90% of all grades are B and above. In fairness to our Ivy League accomplices, the grade of C and below has been significantly diminished in all places, St. Lawrence included. While this larger pattern of college grading is probably irreversible, it reveals an expectancy of perfectionism that needs an occasional rebalancing.

We have developed the perpetual habit on our campuses, in our culture, in all the professions, of making the acquisition of prizes, the grand recognition of high achievement, and the acing of the big test a matter of ultimate significance. I am immensely privileged to watch students every day do extremely difficult things in thought or performance, often with excellence. Simply amazing. And yet, I also wonder or worry that something has been lost by dismissing the power of the C to inspire, deepen determination, and grant the profound realization that it may be the best opportunity ever extended. In no better way than earning the undesirable C can someone discover what can be accomplished in life before anything that truly matters has been accomplished anyhow.

There will be many instances in life of earning a C, no matter what the transcript recorded while in college. We may take up a new sport or art, which we will never master. We may write a report for the office that is not top-form. We may make a business decision that yields middling to mediocre results. Knowing and remembering the lessons of the C student can be reassuring. This is also a person who should never be underestimated.

William L. Fox