Editor's note: Dr. Carla Eastis, assistant professor of sociology at Catawba College, delivered this homily Sept. 15, 2006 during the Initiation of Candidates Ceremony for Catawba's Omicron Chapter of Alpha Chi, the national college honor society. Eastis earned her undergraduate degree from New College of Florida and her master's degrees in sociology and philosophy and her doctorate degree from Yale University.
"Grades Don't Matter"
Thanks very much for inviting me to speak this afternoon. I want to recognize and congratulate the current members of Alpha Chi and those who are about to be inducted into the society. This is quite an honor. You and your loved ones should be proud.
That said ...
I stand before you as a person who never would have been admitted to Alpha Chi, or any honor society for that matter. The last time that I earned "good grades" was in sixth grade.
Now, I think I've done all right for myself despite that record. But that's not what I'm going to talk about.
I don't truly expect to convince you that "grades don't matter." You're already earning good grades, and you've realized that earning good grades has great rewards attached. You're not going to toss that aside because of this little speech. So parents, loved ones, friends — you can relax, these students won't be corrupted. I just want to share a few ideas.
I'll start by saying that academic achievement is not a very interesting goal. What does it mean to make good grades? Up until the very latest stages of your schooling, it means simply that you're really good at answering other people's questions. Too often, in elementary school, middle school, high school, the answers were provided to you as well — the grading process was simply a test of your memory and ability to parrot.
Now you're juniors and seniors in college. And still, you're going through a program with classes and majors and curricula that is, in my opinion, regimented, restrictive — you're still graded, you're still answering questions that are asked of you.
You are here, and being rightly honored, because you are excellent players in the grade game. But, as I say, it's not a game that can hold the interest of an intelligent person for very long, no more than tic-tac-toe or checkers could.
Academics and schooling, the parts that we quantify with grades and semester hours, is just checkers — the rules as simple, every piece is the same. Even if you get a piece to the other side of the board, and yell "king (or queen) me!" all you get is a taller checker that can still only move diagonally — just more of the same.
Checkers is to chess as academic achievement is to intellectualism. And intellectualism? That is an interesting goal.
You are the best checker players we've got. You are the Catawba all-star tem. But, people, you're ready for chess. You're ready for a complicated pursuit, of infinite variety, that can't be fully mastered. Put yourself into a game where the object is not to accumulate knowledge but to realize what you don't know, to get to a question you can't quite figure out.
Many of you have already begun to develop your intellectual chops. There are opportunities to do that here. DON'T MISS THOSE OPPORTUNITIES. Don't leave Catawba without attempting at least one intellectual experience that puts you into a situation where the rules are not easy to understand, where you get to generate all the questions. Create an independent study or independent reading course, take an honors class that is out of your comfort zone, take a challenging internship and jump in with both feet.
You can complete your education at Catawba, or at any college, without doing that. Colleges are full of courses in advanced checker-playing. And you could be quite successful in your adult life without ever truly engaging your intellect.
But I hope you won't. Because until you leave the goal of achievement for achievement's sake behind, until you "add chess to your repertoire," so to speak, you will be selling yourself short. You will not be as interesting as you could be. You will not be as complete as you can be. And you might not be as happy as you should be.
You are all young people with tremendous talents and skills. This ceremony comes near the end of academic life, for most of you. You'll soon be free of the absurdity of grades. I do congratulate you for the achievement that induction in to Alpha Chi represents. But my real, true hope for you is that you will soon put your checkers trophies on the shelf beside your baby shoes, and create a real life of intellectual engagement and questioning for yourselves.
To your loved ones, I say "thank you" for sharing these young people with us. I wish all of you the very best. And thank you all for your attention.
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