Participation trophies and organic chemistry

Maitland Jones Jr., an award-winning professor at NYU, was fired after a group of his students signed a petition alleging that his organic chemistry course was “too hard”. 

I should begin with the usual disclaimer: I don’t know Maitland Jones, or the students who signed the petition. I never took his organic chemistry course. But that doesn’t mean I’m completely unfamiliar with the broader questions here.

In the academic year of 1987 to 1988, I took three semesters of organic chemistry at the University of Cincinnati. The reader might reasonably ask why I did this to myself. 

During the previous summer, I had taken an intensive Biology 101 course, comprised of three parts: botany, zoology, and genetics. I got A’s in all three sections of BIO 101.

Botany and zoology were easy for me because I have always been good at memorizing large amounts of information that has no logical connections. (I’m good at foreign languages, for much the same reason.) I struggled a bit with the genetics portion of Biology 101, which required more math-like problem-solving skills. But I still managed to pull off an A. 

It was a respectable academic performance, but not one that should be over-interpreted. I was 19 years old at the time, however. With the typical logic of a 19-year-old, I concluded that my success in BIO 101 was a sure sign from Providence, indicating that I should go to medical school. I changed my undergrad major to premed, and began taking the math and science courses that comprised that academic track. 

That’s how I crossed paths with organic chemistry. Organic chemistry was nothing like the Biology 101 course I had taken over the summer session. Biology 101 was aimed at more or less the entire student body. (I initially took it to satisfy my general studies science course requirement.) Organic chemistry was aimed at future heart surgeons and chemical engineers. Organic chemistry was the most difficult academic course I have ever taken, or attempted to take.

Organic chemistry is difficult because it requires the ability to memorize lots of information, as well as the ability to apply that information to solve complex problems. Organic chemistry is, in short, the ideal weed-out course for future heart surgeons and chemical engineers. 

How did I do in organic chemistry? Not very well. I managed two gentlemanly Cs, and I dropped out the third semester. 

My dropping out would have been no surprise to my professor. Nor was I alone. Plenty of other students dropped out, too.

Early in the course, I remember the professor saying, “Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor or a chemist. Organic chemistry is a course that lets you know if you’re capable of being a doctor or a chemist.”

That was 1987, long before the participation trophy, and back when a snowflake was nothing but a meteorological phenomenon. My experience with organic chemistry was harrowing, so far as “harrowing” can be used to describe the life of a college student. But in those days, disappointments, setbacks, and the occasional outright failure were considered to be ordinary aspects of the growing up experience. My organic chemistry professor did not care about my feelings or my self-esteem. He only cared if I could master the intricacies of stereochemistry, alkenes, and resonance.

The good news is that I was able to quickly identify a career that I would probably not be good at. Even more importantly, you, the reader, will never look up from an operating table, to see me standing over you with a scalpel.

If we have now reached the point where students can vote their professor out of a job because a course is too hard, then we’ve passed yet another Rubicon of surrender to the cult of feel-good political correctness. 

A decade ago, many of us laughed at the concept of the participation trophy. But at the same time, many of us said: “What’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that small gestures, small surrenders, have larger downstream consequences. A participation trophy is “no big deal” on an elementary school soccer field. At medical school, participation trophies can endanger lives, by enabling the less competent to attain degrees and certifications which they would never have acquired in saner times. 

Are you planning on getting heart surgery down the road? You might want to get it now, before the present generation of premeds and medical students becomes the next generation of doctors.