Like cicadas, law school graduates working as bartenders, feral cats prowling the abandoned alleyways of Detroit, and people who say they’ve read Infinite Jest but have only really skimmed the first 50 pages, it would seem our society currently contains far too-many high school valedictorians. Depending on your level of academic cynicism, this may mean one of two things (and nothing in between! never compromise, class of ‘13!): kids are becoming more diligent students, or schools are inflating grades.
Outrageous numbers of co-valedictorians are a problem — if you can really call lots of kids doing well in school a problem — plaguing only a relatively small number of high schools, but it’s still controversial enough to draw the attention of NBC News, which presented, for our Internet-arguing pleasure, two different high schools with double-digit valedictorians: South Medford High in Oregon (21) and Enterprise High in Alabama (34). Another school in Ohio with a tiny 84-member class is graduating ten valedictorians, which has earned that senior class the nickname “valedictorian,” something that must totally embarrass all the dummies who got Bs in physics (or Spanish, whatever).
The difficulty with naming so many students “valedictorian” is that, like the glut of lawyers and freshly-painted law schools, their supernumerary existence begins to dilute individual achievement, at least in the eyes of eyes of college admissions officers. The more valedictorians you have, the less special the achievement becomes, or, if you prefer to learn your lessons from Pixar, if everyone is super, then no one is.
That’s how elite colleges are starting to see the glut of valedictorians, with critics of multiple-valedictorian graduating classes citing grad inflation (rather than academic diligence) as the real reason so many kids can sail through high school with unblemished GPAs. Maybe teachers are handing out too many easy As, or maybe students (like those at Pittsburgh’s North Hill Senior High back in 2010) are working the system, securing medical excuses so they don’t have to hurt their GPAs with the ritualistic humiliation that is gym class (sorry, gym teachers, but, in its present form, PE is pointless).
A reasonable person can look at a stage choked with more than two dozen valedictorians and think the totally justified thought that something needs to change, if only for practical reasons — graduation ceremonies are boring enough without listening to a never-ending speech parade from kids who aren’t even old enough to rent a car. Maybe you get rid of valedictorians altogether, or maybe you do as Enterprise High plans (after its embarrassment of valedictorian riches this year) to do and start factoring advanced-placement classes in GPAs. Or maybe you do like South Medford and have “valedictorians” and then the one, true valedictorian who gets the dubious honor of speaking in front of a graduating class that just wants to gtfo of high school.
Either way, high school students are going to be judged (and judged harshly) at some point in their lives, either later in their college careers, or in the workplace. It’s nice to acknowledge a student’s hard work and intelligence, but you don’t do kids any favors by condescending to them with an “everyone’s a winner!” graduation ceremony. By 17 and 18, teenagers are usually smart enough to detect adult bullshit, and, if they’re not...well, fuck them. They need to learn — there can be only one Highlander.
Image via AP, M. Spencer Green