It’s hard to imagine a graduation without a valedictorian, or a salutatorian, being honored, or some award to recognize a student, and even have them speak. But while such traditions and honors are being canceled across the country, it’s nice to see some places buck this fad, keeping the academic competition that frequently brings out the best in students.
University of Kentucky Professor John Thelin contends that the practice goes back to the College of William and Mary, three years before the American Revolution. “It began when Norborne Berkeley — formally known as Lord Botetourt — arrived from England to serve as Governor of Virginia. He fell in love with the colony and college. To show his appreciation for the school and the student body, he put up a gold medal as the prize awarded to the student most skilled in Latin written composition and oratory. The victorious student, selected by the college president and faculty, was then designated as the valedictorian. The word is derived from the Latin ‘valedicrere’ which means ‘to say goodbye.’ Accordingly, the valedictorian would deliver the farewell address at commencement. It was an enjoyable way for the honored student to show off with good natured quips and quotes in Latin. To this day at The College of William & Mary, the Lord Botetourt Medal is the top prize given to a graduating senior for scholarship.”
By the 1920s, high schools were adopting the practice, trading in Latin proficiency for the grade point average. But that’s now under siege. According to Thelin, a number of academic institutions are abolishing these special recognitions, citing “unhealthy competitiveness among students.” He also cites scandals such as the recent college admission mess, and to the practice of discriminating based on race, gender and class, and not competence when choosing the recipients.
Thankfully, such a trend hasn’t hit everywhere yet. One of my favorite days of the year is Honors Day, where our students from across a variety of departments have their students compete. Armed with papers, posters, prezis, PowerPoints and projects, they battle it out for a series of awards in categories with a large ceremony afterward where the winners are loudly cheered by their classmates. I use that as a huge motivation for our Senior Seminar class all semester, exhorting our students to do their best like a college football coach pacing the sidelines, spending hours working with them so they’ll produce their best. Whether they win or not, our nominees have used this competition as a springboard for law school, graduate schools and success in the business world or government. There’s nothing unhealthy about being challenged to do your best.
On that day, a student is selected to receive the Waights G. Henry Award, and deliver an address to the college. We’ve had a range of winners, unique in diversity, but united in classroom excellence and service to the community. It’s a practice local high schools seem to be doing as well. While Thelin documents cases where minorities and women have been passed over, or forced to share the honors with others, our local Troup County High School awarded Shekinah Hall, the daughter of Liberian immigrants (dad’s a chemistry professor at our college) the valedictorian distinction a few years ago, while she was taking several LaGrange College courses. She recently received a top award at Georgia Tech in public policy.
Hopefully, our colleges and high schools will understand the importance of inspiring students to do their best in a friendly and fair competition, and not bow to the craze of taking that opportunity away from those eager for a challenge. And congratulations, Class of 2019, for college and high school students alike, as well as their parents, siblings, teachers and professors.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science atin LaGrange. He can be reached at . His Twitter account is JohnTures2.