Valedictorians are on their way out of vogue, at least in some American high schools. The thinking is that there is too much competition for the role of valedictorian, and it’s not the good kind. So in some school districts in the United States, all students who achieve straight A’s are given the title of valedictorian. And in other schools like those of the Wake County School District, the titles of both valedictorian and salutatorian will soon be eliminated completely.
The district instead proposes to award Latin honours to students who achieve a grade-point average of 3.75 or better. The usual honours are:
Cum laude, “with honour” – GPA of 3.75
Magna cum laude, “with great honour” – GPA of 4.0
Summa cum laude, “with highest honour” – GPA of 4.25 or better
Honouring More Students
School board members in favour of the move to a Latin honours system believe it would allow more students to be celebrated for their hard work. They also mention that in recent years there has been concern over “unhealthy competition” for the top two spots at graduation. Lack of collaboration between students was an issue; students were also choosing courses they felt would ensure a higher GPA, rather than because these courses would further their education or career plans.
The Tradition of Valediction
While some criticisms of the new trends focus on the political correctness of recognising more seniors, when I read about the changes I had to wonder about the valedictory address itself. When a school names neither a salutatorian nor a valedictorian, who speaks for the student body at graduation? When every student who has high grades is given the title of valedictorian, which one is chosen to deliver the valediction?
The titles we give our two top students hint at the reason these roles are important. The salutatorian opens the commencement ceremony with a speech on behalf of the students. And the valedictorian says the final farewell. These two speeches are the main contribution of the student body to the graduation ceremony itself. Removing the roles associated with the speeches leaves a gaping hole in the graduation tradition.
What is a Valediction?
The word “valediction” comes from the Latin vale, “farewell” + dicere, to speak. There is a sense of being strong or brave as students who have spent years together prepare to part and go their separate ways. But just as importantly, both the salutation and the valediction give students a voice in a ceremony upon which so much emphasis is placed by the whole of American society.
There is a long history of students delivering these addresses at graduation. But there have been times and places when no student spoke a valediction and instead, adults spoke for them. In fact, the valediction by Hillary Clinton (then Hillary Diane Rodham) in 1969 marked the first time a student ever delivered a valedictory address at Wellesley College. So if it was a move forward in 1969, to turn the valediction over to a student, what is taking it away in 2016 or beyond?