Valedictorian: Archaic Title or Necessary Recognition?

Sophia Lauer, Contributing Editor

As graduation season approaches rapidly, the time has come for a valedictorian and salutatorian to be chosen. But what does it mean to be valedictorian? It means having the best weighted GPA, and not much else.

Valedictorian, being the literal best in class, is a much sought-after position for many students. Some enter high school with the title in mind, others go with the flow and fall into the role if they truly love learning and doing their best.

But having a valedictorian and salutatorian doesn’t always mean a whole lot. Frequently, the selections come down to hundredths or thousands of a GPA point. Others who worked just as hard or harder than the valedictorian and salutatorian may lose either spot. Studying isn’t the same for everyone, with some students needing an hour to do assignments which take others minutes. That can mean the valedictorian didn’t have to work as hard for his or her grades.

On top of that, the title puts additional stress on students. Sometimes, being best in class is an expectation or demand of the parents. Other times, it is a personal goal. Other measures of fulfillment in high school, like sports participation, community service, involvement in the arts, and even awards, go completely ignored in the selection process. This can lead students to being overly focused on grades and ignore their needs for a healthy social life or their extracurricular interests. The title of valedictorian idolizes GPA and GPA only, a measure which doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run. Yes, even in college decisions.

A title of valedictorian far from guarantees acceptance into heavy-hitter schools like Harvard, Yale, or Amherst. Information sessions at Dartmouth say the Ivy-League college could fill its student body six times using just valedictorians, so they ignore the title altogether. William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, admitted, “I think, [being valedictorian] is a bit of an anachronism. This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.” Being active in the community through service, sports, or clubs indicates greater success in the college admissions process (and, as numerous studies have shown, in life beyond college) than being valedictorian does.

Beyond giving a speech and being the feature of a Chieftain Press article, the valedictorian and salutatorian don’t do very much specific to their titles. According to the Boston Globe, the question of keeping the title or abolishing it has been going on nationally for over two decades, with a plethora of parents filing lawsuits every year over who gets the award. This debate has caused over half of all schools nationwide to stop naming valedictorians or salutatorians, says the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Karen Arnold, a Boston College professor who conducted a study on the title using 82 Illinois valedictorians from the class of 1981, doesn’t see the harm in it. “Schools don’t hesitate to reward other achievements. No one talks about getting rid of the position of quarterback on the football team because not everyone can be quarterback,” she argues.

Principal Laura Lasa of Lexington’s high school argues that students can opt into football, but not academics. With Lexington facing increasing rates of attempted suicides, Lasa says the need to de-escalate the “pressure of perfection” outweighs the minimal benefits of keeping the award for many school systems.

Jan Brogan, in an article for The Boston Globe, recalls her daughter being named valedictorian brought her tears of jealousy as she met parents with happier, more carefree students. Her daughter suffered throughout high school with anxiety, depression, and chronic exhaustion caused by constant overworking. Her social life suffered, and she developed an eating disorder soon after graduation.

According to Jason Moser, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, perfectionism, while not classified as a disease, has been linked to poor physical health and to mental health problems like eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. It tends to decrease creativity and the willingness to take risks. This means many valedictorians, looking for perfection in the highly-structured high school environment, have trouble becoming high-achieving entrepreneurs and artists where creativity and innovation are more important than structured, measurable intellect.

As grade inflation increases, being valedictorian means less to colleges than it ever has before. It ignores everything that makes a student an individual and reduces him or her to a number which doesn’t reflect the student’s personal successes or struggles. It fosters rivalries between students and offers additional stressors to high achievers, and frequently limits creativity and mental stability in the long run.

So, with selection time approaching, seniors should remember that grades aren’t everything. Social and community bonds will be more meaningful than any award, so focus on a healthy sense of self and ignore pressures to beat out your friends and classmates for that extra hundredth of a point.

You’ll thank yourself later.