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Co-Valedictorians Crowd Academic Tradition Off The Stage

My mother was the valedictorian of her senior class in high school over fifty years ago. She doesn’t remember exactly what she said at graduation, but she does remember having to memorize her speech word for word.  “You weren’t allowed to read your speech at all.” In a rural farming community that understood how important and education was for the future of their children, being recognized as the top academic student in her school meant a lot.

If my memory serves me correctly, my own grade point rank put me somewhere in the high twenties or low thirties in my own senior class ranking order, where more than five hundred students earned diplomas.  Now that I think about it, somewhere in the high twenties sounds about right, especially since we had weighted averages for more difficult classes—basically, everyone who took both AP Calculus, one of the few AP classes I didn’t take, was ahead of me, since I didn’t dare step into the world of floating polynomials.

But if I had graduated this year, instead of 25 years ago, I still might have had a shot at being a valedictorian myself, even with a class rank in the double digits. In the Sunday edition of the New York Times, the article titled How Many Graduates Does It Take to Be No. 1? held me attention so long my coffee got cold.

“It’s honor inflation,” said Chris Healy, an associate professor at Furman University, who said that celebrating so many students as the best could leave them ill prepared for competition in college and beyond. “I think it’s a bad idea if you’re No. 26 and you’re valedictorian. In the real world, you do get ranked.”

Not, though, at graduation from Stratford High School in the suburbs of Houston, which accorded its 30 valedictorians — about 6.5 percent of the class — gold honor cords. Nor at Cherry Hill High School East in southern New Jersey, which has revised its graduation tradition, picking a speaker among this year’s nine co-valedictorians by lottery and printing speeches from the others in the program.

In Colorado, eight high schools in the St. Vrain Valley district crowned 94 valedictorians, which the local newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, complained in an editorial “stretches the definition.”

How Many Graduates Does It Take to Be No. 1?New York Times

I thought about all the libraries I frequent in and around my neighborhood after reading this article and shook my head. Just mentioning to someone these days that I am going to the library is apt to make them narrow their eyebrows, as if I have announced that I am going to a terrorist cell meeting.

It was no surprise to me to see in the article that many of the top students mentioned by name had Asian surnames, not because of the stereotypical image of the “smart Asian”, but because when I am in my neighborhood libraries, there are mostly Indian and Asian children and teenagers and adults in them.

The revision of “valedictorian” to “co-valedictorian” smacks mightily of the kind of thing that corporations engage in all the time, where processes are not improved or modified, but simply renamed, retitled, or rebranded. But changing the focus of the honor from the individual to the group makes about as much sense as having a “co-husbands” at a wedding because the bride can’t make up her mind.


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