Around the newsroom this week, upcoming graduations were a popular topic as some of the reporters prepared to cover the high school commencements. At our last staff meeting I was taken back when I heard of one local high school’s selection of four valedictorians and two salutatorians for its graduating class.
“In top suburban schools across the country, the valedictorian, a beloved tradition, is rapidly losing its singular meaning as administrators dispense the title to every straight-A student rather than try to choose the best among them,” the New York Times reported in 2010.
The “Valedictorian” — the Latin vale dicere for “to say goodbye” — is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “the student usually having the highest rank in a graduating class who delivers the valedictory address at the commencement exercises.”
I can only imagine how those attending these commencement ceremonies can look at a stage choked with more than six valedictorians/salutatorians and right off the bat think my questioning is totally justified if not only for the practical reasons of having to sit through speeches of the log-jam of A-plus average students, each with their unyielding 15 minutes of inspirational quotations and sappy memories.
Though only affecting one high school locally, I’ve been told this is quite common (and controversial to me) nowadays, in fact in one Tennessee school district, there were 72 designated valedictorians — the best of the best — among 848 graduating students. That means 8.5 percent of the 2015-2016 graduating class is made up of “valedictorians.” One “magnet” school in California named 41 “co-valedictorians.”
The difficulty with naming so many students “valedictorian” is it begins to dilute individual achievement. The more valedictorians you have, the less special the achievement becomes.
If a school has an extremely high-end number of valedictorians, then can I logically assume that grading isn’t very rigorous at that school or maybe the student is “working the system,” unlike us “dummies” who got Bs in biology or barely passed algebra, with seeking out “easy-A” teachers or using a doctor’s note excusing them so they don’t have to hurt their GPAs with the ritualistic humiliation of participating in P.E. class.
I see it as yet another symptom of placating grade inflation with teachers reluctant to jeopardize the best and brightests’ chances of admission to top-tier universities or having to take on performance pressuring helicopter parents if their little darling got marked with anything less than an A.
The title of valedictorian is a noble honor, and it becomes meaningless if several or every marvelous student is awarded it. Why replicate the message that is already present in the academic records? Just give the designation to the person with the highest GPA with the tougher courses or who had meaningful extracurricular activities and be done with it.
State the qualifications in advance and follow it.
When all these graduating students enter adulthood they will be judged — and sometimes harshly — by professors in their selected colleges or by supervisors and peers in the workplace. (and even dissatisfied readers sometimes). It’s nice to acknowledge a student’s hard work and intelligence, but you don’t do the entitlement generation any more favors when appeasing school administrators patronize them with an “everyone’s a winner, we’re all number one!” graduation ceremony.
By the time they’re seniors in high school, teenagers are usually smart enough to see through a dubious glory if awarded to several of them, and, if they’re not ... well, they need to learn.
There can be only one King of the Mountain.
Richard Paloma is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News, and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 847-3021.