That’s because W&L named one hundred and seventeen—that’s right, 117—as valedictorians. And that was out of a class of 457. That means that each of W&L’s graduates had better than a 25% chance to be the/a valedictorian.
I graduated 22 out of a class of 224. I thought that was a pretty solid accomplishment (especially since military moves meant I attended three different high schools, with both transitions occurring midyear).
My true brilliance was evidenced not in my own academic performance, but the fact that I was smart enough to marry a valedictorian!
Technically the valedictorian does not need to have the top grade point average in their class, although that is the usual custom. In fact, they simply need to be chosen to deliver the valedictory. (Yes, it is a noun, as well as its more familiar appearance as an adjective.)
Apparently, at our afore-celebrated high school, over a hundred students shared in this honor. (Must have been a protracted ceremony.)
It seems that in the modern era, we are so compelled to boost children’s self-esteem, that we feel compelled to exaggerate their accomplishments. Many have argued that this misguided effort has the reverse effect.
On the United States’ opposite coast, Long Beach Polytechnic opted for a measly thirty valedictorians (presumably out of a class of more than sixty).
Julia Jaynes, 17, who shared the valedictorian title with 29 others, said that if her school chose only one, it would destroy collegiality among her classmates. “If everyone wants to be the best, I feel like there’d be less collaboration,” she said. “It makes it so you’re only out for yourself.”
Unfortunately, poor Julia is likely to encounter more competition than collaboration in the world she is entering.
I found the following fact disturbingly humorous. The “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.”*
Okay. Can we get a little remedial education in mathematics for the administration of that school?
Screwtape lauded this elevation of the average. (Mind you, there is nothing wrong with being average; that’s why it’s called the average.) Screwtape, of course, is the devil whose correspondence fell into C.S. Lewis’ hands and was published to warn humanity of some demonic strategies for harming us.
The basic principal of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind.
The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.
In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses?—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching.
We [i.e. demonkind] shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.
You can read more about the peculiar story of Washington and Lee High School here.