Valedictorian Madness

Valedictorian Madness

The New Yorker has an article about recent developments in the world of high school valedictorians. It seems that valedictorian races have hit the big time, complete with the requisite lawsuits and restraining orders.

One of the stories, about how one student learned the tiebreaker mechanism and took an extra class to gain an advantage, reminds me of my own experience.

When I was a senior, several students were jockeying for position, including Asher Davison and Florence Tsai. Most folks automatically assumed that one of them would win. However, what they didn’t realize is that in the event of a tie, the tiebreaker went to the student who had taken the most classes.

I had taken 8 classes per semester (6 normal classes, 1 early morning class, and 1 lunchtime independent study) for the simple reason that I wanted to learn as much as possible. As it turned out, this also meant that I had taken more classes than any of the front-runners, and when we all came in with perfect GPAs, I won the tiebreaker.

This was especially galling for some of the other contenders because I had skipped two grades as well.

There was quite a hullabaloo, and several parents demanded a recount. When the recount went through, it turned out that another dark horse, Robert Afra, was actually ahead of the two front-runners.

I stayed out of the mess. What ended up happening was that I was the valedictorian, and then Robert, Asher, and Florence were named co-salutatorians (even though, according to the recount, Robert should have been sole salutatorian).

The whole thing was a tempest in a teacup. And that, I think, is the point of another study cited in the article:

“In 1981, two professors, Terry Denny and Karen Arnold, began following the lives of eighty-one high-school valedictorians—forty-six women and thirty-five men from Illinois. (Their sample is, admittedly, narrow.) According to Arnold’s 1995 book “Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians,” these students continued to distinguish themselves academically in college; a little less than sixty per cent pursued graduate studies. By their early thirties, most were “working in high-level, prestigious, secure professions”—they were lawyers, accountants, professors, doctors, engineers. Arnold totted up fifteen Ph.D.s, six law degrees, three medical degrees, and twenty-two master’s degrees in her group. The valedictorians got divorced at a lower rate than did the population at large, were less likely to use alcohol and drugs, and tended to be active in their communities. At the same time, Arnold, who stays in touch with her cohort, has found that few of the valedictorians seem destined for intellectual eminence or for creative work outside of familiar career paths. Dedicated to the well-rounded ideal—to be a valedictorian, after all, you must excel in classes that don’t interest you or are poorly taught—the valedictorians had “used their strong work ethic to pursue multiple academic and extracurricular interests. None was obsessed with a single talent area to which he or she subordinated school and social involvement.” This marks a difference, Arnold said, from what we know about many eminent achievers, who tend to evince an early passion for a particular field. For these people, Arnold writes, a “powerful early interest evolves into lifelong, intensive, even obsessive involvement in the talent area.” She goes on, “Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.” Valedictorians, by contrast, conformed to the expectations of school and carefully chose careers that were likely to be socially and financially secure: “As a rule, valedictorians relegated their early interests to hobbies, second majors, or regretted dead ends. The serious athletes among the valedictorians never pursued sports occupations. Most of the high school musicians hung up their instruments during college.”

In other words, while valedictorians do well, most of those who are most successful in life were definitely not valedictorians. Let me emphasize one line from the quote above: “Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.” I hope you’re reading this, Ben!

School isn’t like real life. In fact, it’s about as far from real life as can be imagined. The lessons that let you be successful in school (follow the rules, work hard, know the right answers) are completely the opposite of those that help you become a successful entrepreneur (change the rules, work smart, know the right questions).

That’s something these would-be valedictorians and their parents should keep in mind as they file their lawsuits.

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