McClellan: Do “C” students rule the world? | Bill McClellan

Shortly after he announced his impending retirement, I had the opportunity to speak with St. Louis Public School Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

He’s been pushing the rock up the hill for 14 years. It is a remarkable perseverance. Unfortunately, the block hasn’t made much progress. Up a few feet, down a few feet.

In other words, student achievement, measured by standardized tests, has remained stable. He was, and is, weak.

I asked Adams if he thought we put too much emphasis on standardized testing.

“Absolutely,” he said. “C students run the world.”

You would expect an educator in a struggling school system to say that, right? On the other hand, perhaps the tests, and even the school itself, are not predictive of future success.

There are many examples of successful people who did not do well in school. Unfortunately, there is often a back story.

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For example, Bill Gates is a college dropout. Yes, but he gave up because he had a business idea. He called it Microsoft. Also, the school dropped out was Harvard, and before he dropped out, he had to get into it.

German-born Albert Einstein dropped out of school in Munich, then failed the entrance exam to a polytechnic in Zurich. Yes, but the entrance exam was in French. Moreover, at the age of 13, his favorite author was Immanuel Kant.

John McCain graduated from the US Naval Academy, ranked 894 out of 899. Yes, but his father and grandfather were both admirals, so he probably didn’t care about grades.

President Joe Biden was admittedly a mediocre student. Back when he was a famous real estate mogul, Donald Trump told The New York Times that he graduated at the top of his class from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He later changed that by graduating with honors. Penn does not release transcripts without a student’s permission, but the copies of the graduation ceremony do not list any honors for Trump.

So who knows? Half the country will believe he was the legitimate valedictorian – by a long shot! — and the honor has been stolen, and the other half will believe that Trump is helping make Adams’ point about C-students running the world.

Think about your own experiences. Has excellence in school translated into success in the world?

My experience is mixed, but leans towards Adams’ thesis.

Perhaps the most successful businessman I studied with was Don Fike. I met him at the University of Illinois. He was from the small town of Tonica in central Illinois. He was not a great student. In fact, he was barely better than me, and I failed.

Don earned a degree in psychology. He went to work in a retirement home. He learned the trade and then went on his own. He has built and managed residences for the elderly and disabled. Quality places. There was a need for such homes in small towns in central Illinois.

Before long, he had homes in other states. It had 6,000 employees. He had his own plane, and he used it to watch over his empire. He was a stock car racer when I knew him and he started his own racing company. His two sons were among his drivers.

He is now retired and still lives in Tonica. Among other things, he is the owner of the municipal bank.

I don’t want to mislead. I also met people who did well in school and did well later.

Jim Benson was another friend from Illinois. We did the dishes together. The singing dishwashers, we called each other. We composed the lyrics as we went along. Thank goodness there was no YouTube back then. We would have been cancelled, and rightly so.

Jim was an excellent student. Moreover, cool and competent. At 20, he behaves like a CEO. If it was possible to buy stocks from people, I would have loaded Benson.

As a hobby, he memorized maps. I might say, “Hey, Jim. If I wanted to drive from Seattle to El Paso and stay off the freeways, how would I go? He would smile. “Let me think,” he would say. Then he showed me the route. A smart guy who memorizes cards. How often do you encounter this?

So when Benson became CEO of a major life insurance company and then president of the University of Illinois Alumni Society, it was no surprise.

I last saw him years ago when he came to St. Louis to take over General American, once the bluest of our blue chips, fell apart under Richard Liddy. Benson was going to oversee GenAm from Boston or New York. We have eaten lunch. He was a big deal then, and I thought his horizons had broadened since our days as a dishwasher.

Are you still studying the maps? I asked. He said he was working on the third world. It was hard. Not many marked routes.

So yeah, sometimes you can see things coming.

Tipping the scales towards Adams theory is another very successful friend. He was an average student. Except in store. It was below average in store. He was not a handyman.

He went to a little college in Indiana. While in college, he developed a marketing plan that could apply to campuses across the country. He sold it to Playboy for $1 million. He hadn’t even taken a marketing course.

He was the country’s youngest self-made millionaire. He appeared as a guest on a TV show, “To Tell the Truth”. Two other young men claimed to be the youngest self-made millionaires in the country. A panel of celebrities interviewed the three, then voted on who the real guy was.

Only one of the panelists – I think it was Dorothy Kilgallen – chose my friend, and she said she only chose him because he seemed so unlikely.

I watched the show and I know what she meant. He looked like a C student.

Maybe Kelvin Adams is onto something.

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