(I will forgive you if you’re asking: so what else is new at Kittywampus? Are we not already pedantic enough?)
First comes this recent New York Times piece on the proliferation of valedictorians like bunnies – via Jesse at Pandagon, who observes:
they [high school principals] simply label each person who’s received honors a “valedictorian”, which is sort of like naming a Pro Bowl team in the NFL and then simultaneously declaring every qualified player the MVP.
Full disclosure: I was valedictorian in a class of about 400. The salutatorian – let’s call him Max – got a B in wood shop his freshman year. He was better than me in physics; I surpassed him in English. We still both earned A’s in those classes. Unfairly, my D (yes, D!) in swimming didn’t count. We absolutely should have shared the honors.
Neither Max nor I worked our asses off. We got good grades with pretty rudimentary study habits. There was none of this “5.0 points entered into the GPA for an A in an AP class.” There were no AP classes. The grade scale topped out at 4.0. We nonetheless learned about parallel construction in English, which fewer than five percent of my college students have even heard of. (Note: that’s fewer than, not less than.) Outside of school, I spent a lot of time tooting my horn (literally) and playing organ for the Christian Scientists (as a crass mercenary). Max played a mean air-guitar version of “Godzilla.” He and I each had a life. I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes and he idolized Jim Morrison, but neither of us were hopped-up overachievers. Much later, Max taught me how to operate a bong (purely on an theoretical, academic level, of course – oh, hai, DEA!).
I gave a speech that was pure pandering to shared memories. It was written in a few minutes after drinking beer all afternoon at Folsom Lake. This turned out to be good preparation for teaching – writing under intense pressure, that is – not quaffing a beer prior to lecturing.
As gladly as I would have shared the honor with Max, splitting it even five ways would’ve sucked. Some of my favorite stats from the Times article:
In Colorado, eight high schools in the St. Vrain Valley district crowned 94 valedictorians, which the local newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, complained in an editorial“stretches the definition.” And north of New York City, Harrison High School is phasing out the title, and on Friday declared 13 of its 221 graduates “summa cum laude.”
William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, said he had heard of schools with more than 100 valedictorians, and had seen home-schooled students praised as No. 1 — out of one — all of which has helped render the distinction meaningless.
Exactly! Despite my lifelong slackerdom (or maybe because of it?), I’d like to see my nanosecond in the sun (at age 17) retain its glitter. Folsom Lake glittered. The beer glittered. Quite possibly, I glittered.
But the issue here is really not about me. Since the 1980s, not only high-school GPAs but also the SAT and GRE have experienced major score drift. And yet the poor kids work ever harder. To me, it looks grim and joyless. What’s the help of grade inflation if everyone now must get an A?
Indeed, what happens when you dilute achievement to the extent described in the Times? You invite people to start gaming the system. You give extra points for honors classes, and so students pile on the honor classes just for the GPA advantage, not because a superhuman workload is good for them educationally. Or you don’t reward honors classes but count an A in home ec just like an A in physics, resulting in a pile-up of busy-beaver achievers in home ec. All of this is magnified by a cultural attitude toward college admissions that encourages kids to “build a resume” from preschool onward, rather than learning things they love, pursuing activities just for fun, and gently stretching their comfort zone.
And y’know, it’s possible to be both fun-loving and pedantic. Case in point: my love for this clip that Andrew Sullivan published a couple of weeks ago:
I have to admit, red-faced, that I’d never thought through the phrase “hold down the fort.” I’m a new convert to killing the superfluous “down.” But “I could care less”? Well, I’ve cared less about this abomination – a lot less, to no effect whatsoever – for a couple of decades now. Behold the graph. This is not Monty Python (although I did laugh out loud). This is logic. Bow down before it!
I wonder how many of those 94 valedictorians know the difference? Or couldn’t they care less?
Update, 30 seconds after I hit publish: Now you get to point and laugh at all of my typos in this post. I just found the first one and corrected it. Starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions and ending them with prepositions is not fair game; this is accepted Kittywampus style, as are split infinitives. Otherwise, fire away!