June 30, 2010


Lovely: another faux trend story from the New York Times, this time about the honoring of multiple valedictorians, and then the easily-anticipated "standards must be dropping!" outcry from those who worry about these things. I remember that my school district started honoring multiple straight-A students in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and weighted AP classes began precisely to address this and make fine distinctions among a bunch of students who worked hard. As the person who was the official valedictorian of my high school class the first year of weighted grades in the school, I can truthfully state that a bunch of my fellow students generally worked harder than I did in high school, and that while I was reasonably proud of a consistent academic record, "valedictorian" has never been a part of my identity, nor has it appeared on any vitae I've written. Valedictorian honors are transitory by their nature: they become public the day they become largely irrelevant except as a mark of the irretrievable past. (The parallel in adult life: as Judith Martin writes, you really don't want your wedding to be the best day of your life, or it's all downhill from there.) To be honest, the most accurate and predictive honor I received as a high school student was the appellation on senior superlatives (the list of "most" and "best" and "most likely to" that many high school classes vote on): doesn't dress to impress. 

Okay, okay, there may be some relevance to the term for those who think that academic competitions are important marks of social values, so maybe we should coin a new term for the group of graduating seniors who have passed a threshold for impressive and consistent academic accomplishments. I nominate the term Ooh-datorian, as in "Ooh... the tenth-ranked student in this class worked harder and did more than the valedictorian in my high school class." And that's true for my daughter's graduating class. I know about half of the top ten students in her class by GPA because, well, my daughter hung out with the dangerous type of crowd that gets together over winter break to study calculus. If I remember correctly, the tenth-ranked student in her class was her friend who borrowed a copy of Calculus Made Easy because she was feeling uneasy (and I don't think she need have), the third-ranked student is her friend of many years who is the hardest-working high school student I've ever met, and so on. (There are plenty of graduating students at her high school whose grades were not as high but also impressed me in many ways, and if they are at all representative of this cohort of teenagers, I feel quite good about the next generation.)

In general, I think academic honors should be proportional to the relevance of the work to one's life. Honor people's academic work in one phase of schooling, but honor lots of things of similar importance, and keep it all in perspective. I am proud to know my daughter's friends partly because they work hard in academics but more because they work hard in more than one sphere of life, and I'd trust several of them with my life.

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Posted in Education policy on June 30, 2010 5:36 PM | Submit