We’re All Valedictorians

valedictoriansWell, not quite. But, if you just graduated from Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, there is a fair chance you might be.

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.


13 thoughts on “We’re All Valedictorians

  1. “The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career” This is, more or less, what happened to some of my cousins, with disastrous results. Bad things happen when a bright mind faces years of boredom.

    1. I can relate a bit to that. I often felt like I was the only “responsible” person in any group activity, be it reading, memorization, etc. Of course, what I attributed to lack of initiative on the part of my fellow students may well have been a sign of less ability. Whatever the case, I (probably wrongly) recall always having to give 110% to compensate for the sluggards. Sad, but true.

      It’s a rare joy–that I currently savor–when we are linked together with similarly motivated teammates. Each brings their own skills and the end result is a genuine product of synergy. So very satisfying!

  2. CalebAnderson

    Bravo! Excellent post. In our culture it isn’t “all men are ‘created’ equal”, it’s “all are equal,” regardless of whether or not they are. All are created equal, but I would be an idiot to say that I have just as much authority as the president because I’m his “equal”.

    1. True. Equal does not meet “same.” Nor does it mean of parallel “importance” to the whole. In God’s eyes, of course, all are equally beloved.

      Ironically, the Lord would seem to desire for us to love the “least” of our sisters and brothers even more than those who have much in the world’s estimation.

      Returning, though, to academics. The true test is not in how far one gets, but in how well we have used what we have. And, circumstances (e.g. familial responsibilities) sometimes interfere with such matters… so it’s unwise to “judge.” That said, if I was ranked one hundred and seventh at Washington and Lee, integrity may have forced me to decline the “honor.”

  3. I read a story this morning about Steelers’ OLB James Harrison’s response to making a lack of performance look good: “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.” (find his entire Instagram post here: http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2015/08/love-steelers-player-sons-return-participation-trophies-trophies-winners-not-showing/ )

    Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many of the parents of the 117 valedictorians forced their children to rebuff this dubious “honor.” There were many teachable moments here that may have gone to waste and for that many, I suspect, share the blame.

    1. I saw him interviewed about that, right after I’d written this column. He emphasized how much he encourages them to do their best and praises what they accomplish, but he’s unwilling to exaggerate accomplishments that are not truly exceptional. That’s a great insight you offer into the teachable moment with the kids involved in this affair…

  4. What a insightful and wonderful post.
    There were over 1,000 in my graduating class in HS ( there were over 1,200 that fall – not everyone graduated due to moving, required credits, not passing and stuff) I was in the middle of top quarter somewhere. It was very competitive, so? Life is competitive. You work hard, you should get the rewards.
    Without competition in HS and college, working in business and the real world can be a real shock.
    How about some realism that used to be taught: “There’s always someone smarter, brighter, prettier than you – and always some less smart, less capable, less pretty… But everyone has something they are good at – and you should head towards that. And always try your best – not to please others, but to make yourself proud of what you did.”
    Simplistic dreaming maybe.
    It is more difficult now with helicopter parents pushing their “trophy kids”. Many of them drove schools crazy with manipulating their kids school careers: should “Honor/AP classes get extra points? Some had kids taking courses by mail or summer school to nudge up their averages. A big thing here was to put a kid in a smaller private school then jump them into weaker public school at the last semester and to the head of the class rankings (or the SR year and have them only take easy electives.) Schools changed to say no ranking for late transfers.
    Some kids end up cheating or crashing. School gave in to protect the kids in some cases from their nutty pushy parents
    Interesting “average” and being “equal” is so lauded these days

    1. Many wise thoughts here. Times certainly have changed. I commend schools and parents who keep standards high and resist these pressures. Hopefully, when we see the failed results of this approach, there may be return to healthier theories… Nah, that’s just wishful thinking.

  5. Thanks for sharing. How horrifying to watch our culture crumble, not from barbarian outsiders coming and taking over (as is customary in history) but from creating our own little barbarian insiders until there’s no one left who knows what this or that button is for…

    1. Indeed… it will probably be the knowledge of proper buttons to push that atrophies last in this civilization. The ability to plant and build will likely have ended even sooner.

  6. My four-year-old grandson received a huge medallion just for showing up for T-Ball. Everyone got one. Fortunately, he was more interested in the bag of chips that came with it.

  7. Pingback: C.S. Lewis at Belsen « Mere Inkling

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