WHAT DO Jodie Foster, Hillary Clinton, Dr. Seuss and Cindy Crawford all have in common? They were all sole valedictorians at their high schools. Of course, as we head to another graduation season, the sole valedictorian is becoming a relic of a bygone era.
It's dying because the self-esteem-at-all-costs movement, grade inflation, meddlesome parents and — yes — lawyers have turned what used to be a good four years of healthy academic competition into some kind of academic Hunger Games that must be stopped. They want to replace it with their new norm: multiple valedictorians.
Wouldn't you think principals and other officials would feel silly standing on stage with 5, 10 or 25 fake valedictorians? Apparently not in Jericho, N.Y. Principal Joe Prisinzano defended his seven valedictorians to the New York Times, saying, "When did we start saying we should limit the honors so only one person gets the glory?"
Hey, buddy, we've been doing this forever. Haven't you heard of the silver or bronze medal? Didn't you ever hear Bert Parks or someone else say that the runner-up is important in case Miss America can't serve?
However, his view was reflected by Yvette Leung, one of the Jericho seven, who also told the Times, "To be valedictorian is an honor and a testament to how hard we've tried." So, it's not about achievement, but trying. Is this learning to deal with winning or losing, or being coddled to being happy in a world that ends in ties?
In another amusing story, Sunday's New York Post noted that officials of some of New York City's elite college-prep schools have directed faculty and staff not to publicly congratulate their students for acceptance into Ivy League schools. The reason? It might make other students feel bad.
Locally, Cherry Hill East High School has added a special twist to the whole process of not being able to have adults make a decision based on criteria and select one valedictorian. They had nine co-valedictorians and chose the winner by a lottery. So, this high honor is reduced to a game of chance.
Hey, Cherry Hill, I know budgets are tough, so this year allow parents and kids to buy lottery tickets for every kid in the class, and on graduation night pull a lucky winner in a dramatic fashion. Think of the pleasure the D student and his/her parents would have to celebrate someone who did little or nothing for four years.
One of the other things fueling the ditching of the sole valedictorian is the rampant grade inflation that results in significant numbers of kids getting a 4.0 GPA. Schools would have us believe that kids are suddenly more driven and smarter, but I don't think that's the case. In my years of teaching, I've seen the requirements dropped for achieving an A, B,C or D. The result is that you may have many kids beat the odds and end up with a perfect score. The remedy is to toughen the grading scale and the curriculum.
I even see this creeping softness intruding in the world of sports. The phrase "everyone gets a trophy" has been chronicled and derided by a thousand pundits because it really exists and it captures the fact that in many Little Leagues there is little or no emphasis on competition and learning to win and lose gracefully. There are "no keeping score" rules, mercy rules, rules about how much the better kids can play and that just participating is the same thing as winning.
Winning at all costs is out, and rightfully so, but it's been replaced by the idea that everyone is a winner no matter what. They're performing a severe disservice to kids who will be woefully unprepared for the real world.
There is at least one bastion that is holding out against this trend toward faux valedictorians. The Catholic high schools in the area are not buying into the arguments about pressure to honor more students. When my son Luke was valedictorian at Bishop McDevitt High School, the standards were clear and the curriculum was challenging enough that they did not end up with a load of kids with GPAs of 4.0.
Another disturbing aspect of this misguided system is the fairness obsession on steroids. In doing research on this, I came across the argument that ponders how we could settle something like this on mere decimal points. The Olympics are coming in a few months, and there, athletes train for four years or more to possibly lose by a hundredth of a second or by the bias of a judge from Bulgaria. Maybe we should go back and find the guy who lost to Michael Phelps by a whisker and make him a co-gold medalist.
We have to get away from the arguments that if you try hard and don't win you'll be scarred for life. Albert Einstein was only the salutatorian for his high-school class. I think he rebounded pretty well. n