credit: uaf.edu

credit: uaf.edu

We have seen the trend: everyone is a winner; everyone is brilliant; everyone can do everything! By ignoring human nature, we can remake society, we can remake human beings into bright, new creations in the shining new world where little birds chirp happily, the sun always shines, and everyone lives in perfect peace and harmony.

Thus do we force our children to play games where everyone gets a trophy and no scoring is allowed. Thus do we banish advanced placement classes so that no one feels badly at being excluded from those classes. And thus have we done away with valedictorians at high school graduations, as Moriah Balingit at the Washington Post reports. 

The top student in a high school’s graduating class used to earn the honor of being the valedictorian, and traditionally that one student delivered a commencement speech that helped send his or her classmates out into the adult world.

But at Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School this year, there were 117 valedictorians out of a class of 457. At Long Beach Polytechnic in California, there were 30. And at some schools — including North Hills High outside of Pittsburgh and high schools in Miami — there were none.

Why would any rational educator want to do that?

The result? Some say schools have deflated the meaning of a well-earned and time-honored accolade while also vexing college admissions officers, who don’t know if a student finished first or 100th in the class. Others say getting rid of valedictorians entirely allows students to focus on their achievements without worrying about where they fall in the pecking order.

‘Education’s not a game. It’s not about ‘I finished first and you finished second,’  said North Hills Superintendent Patrick J. Mannarino, who was the North Hills High principal when the school got rid of the valedictorian designation in 2009. ‘That high school diploma declares you all winners.

Yes, they’re all special snowflakes, all just perfect and equal in achievement and ability. Some schools, however, have not yet drunk the Kool-Aid and stepped into the brave, new world.

Believing that the honor should be reserved solely for the student with top grades, some schools continue to select only one valedictorian. At the selective Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, that tradition still holds, Principal Joyce Kenner said.

‘I don’t plan to change our system as long as I’m principal,’ Kenner said, adding that allowing multiple valedictorians ‘would water down the valedictorian title.”

Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, recalled an applicant whose Midwestern high school reported that every student finished in the top half of the class. He worries that allowing several students to share a top rank diminishes the achievement of a student who otherwise would have been alone in the top spot.

‘It’s sort of like the Lake Wobegon effect, where everybody is above average, where everyone is No. 1,’ Bock said. ‘When you have what I think is an artificial ranking, is that really meaningful? I would say for selective admissions, that’s not doing them a service.’

And Bock worries that a culture of overachievement — the idea that all students must be extraordinary — is driving the shift. ‘They’ve got to be not just good but stellar,’ he said, ‘when it’s okay not to be.’

David Hawkins, executive director of educational content and policy at the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, said colleges are weighing rank less in the admissions process, perhaps because so many high schools no longer provide it. In a survey of 352 colleges in 2013, the association found that just 15 percent of colleges weighed class rank as a factor of “considerable importance” in admissions. In 1993, 42 percent of schools surveyed considered it an important factor.

The process of choosing a valedictorian also has risen in complexity because more students are taking multiple Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, where A’s are worth more than top grades in standard courses. A 4.0 is no longer considered the gold standard of academic performance when weighted grade-point averages can be much higher; Gerri Zhang, the valedictorian at Whitney M. Young, had a 5.3 GPA.

Zhang, and other students, despite being only 18, understand human nature much better than highly educated adults:

Even if they got rid of the title and there were no rankings, I think kids would still be pushing themselves and being stressed about the future and their grades,’ said Zhang, who will head to the University of Chicago this fall on a full scholarship. She called the competition among her classmates ‘friendly.’ [skip]

But some said it is an honor they would not want to share. Fiona Young, who was the lone 2014 valedictorian at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn., set her sights on earning the title early in high school.

‘I knew I wasn’t going to be the sports captain. I wasn’t going to be prom king or queen . . . so I wanted to set a goal for myself that embodied what I really valued,’ said Young, now a rising sophomore at Harvard. ‘Giving my speech, being up there and seeing the sea of people . . . and knowing that I was the only one, that’s a feeling I would not want to give up.

As I have often written, our educators are always able to focus on what’s truly important: sports, particularly football. We accept, without question, that only one boy, usually a senior, will be the quarterback of the varsity football team. We spend no time at all worrying about the feelings of all of the others that will never achieve that distinction. We do not, for a moment, feel badly for all the boys that will never be good enough to earn a place on the varsity football team with all the adulation and pomp and circumstance that entails. We do not care about their feelings and loss of self-esteem because this is football, which is more important than, well, just about anything!

We accept as absolute truth the understanding that people are different. Some will simply always be bigger, faster, stronger, more coordinated and more athletically capable than others, and we eventually reward such people with multi-million dollar salaries in professional sports. We worship such people as heroes, and reflexively speak in sports metaphors. Even when some of these heroes turn out to be wife-beaters and felons, we downplay their frailties and exalt the glory of sport as an example of the best in humanity. The striving, the sweat, the effort, the training, the overcoming of obstacles, the triumph of will, the beauty of sport!

And then there are academics.

There, we ignore, even suppress, human nature. Where knowledge, where intellectual pursuits are concerned, where intelligence, striving, effort, training, the overcoming of obstacles, the triumph of will, are concerned, we must ruthlessly downplay reality and embrace Lake Woebegon where everyone is above average.

A-on-test-unfair

There is no question that some people are smarter than others. Because of their genetic endowment, and because they have, for whatever reason, chosen to work hard to develop their intellect and academic abilities, such people are just more capable than others. It has always been so, and always will be so. It is because of these people, not professional football players, that we enjoy lives of leisure and productivity unimaginable to previous generations. Smart phones, CD players, every useful consumer good and service were invented and marketed by smart people, people who could think, and act, in ways not possible for most.

Ms. Young realistically knew she would not be a sports hero, but had the very human drive to excel in ways possible for her. Americans particularly are driven to do well, to achieve what they can, to take responsibility for themselves and their success. They believe that hard work pays off. At least some, despite the best efforts of progressives, still believe that.

We are, in the high school valedictory wars, fighting the fundamental battle between progressive and conservative ideology. Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity. Conservative educators therefore establish fair and reasonable rules. Every student interested in such things knows precisely what they must do to become Valedictorian of their class from their first day of high school. These rules are also established to ensure only a single valedictorian. Even so, in extraordinary circumstances, exceptions may be made. Occasionally, two students end their high school careers with exactly the same high score under the rules. In such cases, it is reasonable to have co-valedictorians rather than to trump up a tie-breaking rule at the last minute. The result of such policies is self-respect, positive, earned feelings of worth based on external criteria.

Progressive educators believe in equality of outcome. They therefore establish rules that discourage–even make impossible–excellence, and ensure that everyone will have equal achievements. No one should feel badly that they are not as focused and intelligent, as hard-working and capable as the smartest students, so the smartest and most capable students will be brought down to the level of the average–or lower. The result of such policies is that the best are dispirited and decide not to play such deranged games. They find ways outside of school to achieve and learn, such as taking and passing college classes. Many such students enter college as sophomores and juniors. For most kids, however, the promise of self-esteem–positive, un-earned feelings of worth based on no criteria whatever–is fulfilled. They are great and brilliant and wonderful because they think they are.

We do ourselves no favors, we do our children no service, by pretending that reality doesn’t exist. Though it is often watered down and the undeserving are often lauded, excellence still exists and is absolutely necessary. In truth, high school kids know who the smartest, most academically capable kids are. They know they aren’t in that group, and most don’t waste a moment’s energy worrying about it. Learning to graciously appreciate the success and excellence of others, leaning to avoid jealousy and envy, are also important lessons any school must teach and continually reinforce.

Pretending that everyone is just as smart and capable as everyone else is not only not helpful, it’s destructive to individuals, and to the survival of our representative republic.

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