With the birther issue finally put to rest, Donald Trump has now turned to Obama's intellectual abilities: "I heard he was a terrible student." That rumor -- probably based on Obama's comment in his memoir that he was not always an academic star -- made Trump wonder how President Obama got into Columbia University and Harvard University Law School.
Trump claims that Obama's earlier school grades, particularly at Occidental College prior to transferring to Columbia University, were lackluster and did not merit admission to Ivy League schools, hinting that Obama received special favor. Once again Trump is demanding proof -- this time he wants to inspect Obama's school transcripts. Should we be concerned? I think not.
The broader question is how meaningful or predictive is early academic performance. While there is generally a high correlation between early academic success with later academic performance and success in some aspects of life, there are notable exceptions. And these should make us wary of statistical analyses that apply to large groups but tell us little about individual cases. That's why it's better to evaluate the merits of present performance than to look at the past. Certainly, in Obama's case, regardless of what his early records show, his achievements in higher education and in political office testify to his superior intellect. You don't graduate magna cum laude or become editor of the Harvard Law Review because you're a nice guy.
At the moment we have only Obama's statements, in his own writings, about what sort of student he was. We do know that he attended a high-ranking elite private school in Hawaii, where the demands on students were considerable. But even if he was not at the top of his class, it's important to recognize that many students who do poorly early on excel later, often making significant contributions. Should we demonize them and Obama for their early school standings?
Well, what does history have to say?
Let's begin with Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists in the history of the world. Much of modern life runs on Newton's discoveries. Yet Newton did so poorly in grade school that his teachers held little hope that he would improve his grades. One school report even called him "idle and inattentive." Then there's Albert Einstein, a scientific genius, equal to Newton. Einstein's grade school performance was so bad that one of his teachers thought he was mentally retarded and advised him to quit school, adding that he would never amount to anything. Inventor Thomas Edison, who gave us the light bulb and other inventions (1,093 patents) that ushered in the 20th century, was called dull by a grade school teacher who believed that Edison had no ability to learn. Pablo Picasso was dyslexic and a poor student who had great difficulty with reading. One report said that "dyslexia made school difficult and he never really benefited from his education." However, Picasso's early school difficulties could not forecast the immense impact he would have on modern art. Winston Churchill, a Nobel Prize winner and two term Prime Minister of England struggled in school and actually failed sixth grade. A current example, Richard Branson, one of today's great entrepreneurs, also had dyslexia and exhibited poor academic performance. Branson later capitalized on other innate talents that have catapulted him to the stratosphere of business success and wealth. The list goes on.
What can we learn from all this? Mr. Obama: Don't show us your school transcripts. Whether outstanding or not they don't matter. Let's focus on the now!