Everyone’s Wonderful! [Part II and Counting]

I noted some time back that the scholar Jacques Barzun had documented in his book From Dawn to Decadence what he believed was the decline of western culture and civilization and predicted its eventual fall.  One of his key indicators was the elevation of credentials and the devaluation of achievement. Along these lines, the June 27th edition of The New York Times [brought to my attention by an alert reader] carried an article noting the emergence and recognition of multiple high school valedictorians. One high school had 94, and another even had 100!

While many factors have contributed to this kind of absurdity, two factors stand out: (1) rampant grade inflation based on an unwillingness of educators and parents to apply stringent standards that measure true achievement and (2) a society-wide unwillingness to recognize that true excellence is rare – except perhaps in professional sports.

So many problems arise from this tendency to over-praise and over-reward the younger generation that I can’t possibly go into all of them in a blog.  But I do want to address some of those of greater import, not necessarily in order of societal impact, but as I see them.  First of which is the fact that, beyond high school and certainly beyond college, there can’t be multiple “winners.”  There will only be one position at the hospital for a new surgeon, one or two vacancies for new teachers each year at the local school or a handful at most.  Graduate schools only take a limited number of applicants from the overall pool, and they do make choices.  Sometimes, the choices or the grounds on which they’re made may not be fair, just as a bad grade in freshman PE may keep a high school student from becoming valedictorian [if only one is chosen, the way it used to be], but the plain fact is that, in life, economics and need limit what is available, and students need to learn that not everyone gets to be top dog, even if the differences between the contenders seem minuscule,

Second, by recognizing multiple students as “valedictorians,” schools and parents are both devaluing the honor and simultaneously over-emphasizing it as a credential.  As a result, more and more colleges are ignoring whether students are “valedictorians” and relying on other factors, such as, perhaps regrettably, standardized test scores.

Third, like it or not, as former President Jimmy Carter once stated [and for which he was roundly criticized], “Life isn’t fair.”  It may not be “fair” that one teacher somewhere in the past didn’t like this or that student’s performance and gave them an A- rather than an A, and that kept them from being valedictorian.  It’s not “fair” that Ivy League schools now require better grades from their female applicants than from their male applicants because more female students work harder and the schools don’t want to overbalance their student bodies with women.  Unfortunately, what society can do in “legislating” fairness is not only limited, but impossible to produce anything close to absolute fairness in real terms.  All society can do is set legal parameters to prohibit the worst cases.  We, as individuals, then have to do our best to act fairly and learn to work around or live with the instances where “life isn’t fair,” because it isn’t and never will be.

Fourth, frankly, in cases of similar or identical grades, other factors should be weighed.  They certainly are in all other occupational situations in life, because they have to be. When there are limited spaces, decisions will be made to determine who gets the position.  Not observing this practical factor in high school is just another aspect of giving students an inflated view of their own “specialness,” or, if you will, the continuation of the “trophies for everyone” philosophy.

But… is anyone listening?  Apparently not, because there’s more and more grade inflation, more and more valedictorians, and more and more emphasis on how “wonderful” every student is.

7 thoughts on “Everyone’s Wonderful! [Part II and Counting]”

  1. Iron Sparrow says:

    If everyone is special, then no one is.

  2. hob says:

    Everybody is equal in a democracy so that those who are at the top of the non existent hierarchy are not really responsible and cannot obviously be held to account.

    I wonder if there is a correlation between greater accumulation of resources into the hands of a few and greater emphases on honors/gold stars/have a lolly pop etc.

  3. hob, I have to disagree. Democracy is only about the vote, and everyone’s vote has equal weight. There is nothing written into democracy which guarantees equal socioeconomic or educational stature, equal social status, equal home-of-origin starting points, or equal success/failure outcomes.

    Currently, our cognoscenti seem to labor under the mistaken notion that all children — all of them, down to the last blinking idiot — deserve a college education. Ponder that for a second. Not deserve an opportunity, but deserve the degree itself. How can this be achieved, unless college degrees get dumbed down to the level of Highschool degrees — which have already been dumbed down to the point that you can literally graduate highschool in 2010 without knowing how to read, write, or do basic math. Because the public system is prevented from flunking anyone.

    In order for a degree — at any level — to have any merit, it has to be difficult to get. Meaning, it’s got to take a lot of work, and the person doing the work has to have a certain level of intelligence and analytical ability, combined with discipline. Those who lack the intelligence, or the discipline, should not get the degree. But society now believes that every child has a right to that degree, thus rendering it a meaningless certificate of participation. Nothing more.

    Sadly, I don’t see much changing in the public schools. Too many parents are unwilling to accept the hard truth about their oh-so-mediocre, often ill-disciplined and too-entitled children, and the government would fire any teacher who tried to elevate the coursework above the (abysmal) standard. Because it would make the kids work too hard, and the slackers would fall behind and flunk out.

    And in American in the 21st century, everyone has the right to not flunk out. EVER.

  4. hob says:

    “hob, I have to disagree. Democracy is only about the vote, and everyone’s vote has equal weight. There is nothing written into democracy which guarantees equal socioeconomic or educational stature, equal social status, equal home-of-origin starting points, or equal success/failure outcomes.”

    That is what I was trying to imply. The systematic misinformation as to what a democracy is and what it is not and in whose interests it is to keep it that way.

  5. christoph says:

    Excellent post with which I have only one minor disagreement: excellence is rare even in professional sports!

  6. hob, my apologies for misunderstanding your point.

  7. hob says:

    The fault is mine. I was trying to imply. Obviously did a bad job of it.

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