Forget the Honours, What Happens to Valediction?

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.

Schools ditching valedictorians to eliminate ‘unhealthy competition’ | #grad #valedictorian #commencement
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(Graphic made in Canva, public domain photo by annca/Pixabay)

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?


12 thoughts on “Forget the Honours, What Happens to Valediction?

    1. I wonder if school districts ever stop to think about how these changes feel to students, rather than simply emphasizing the management of problems. For these kids, graduation is the culmination of 13 years in school. It’s been built up by their family and friends, as well as in popular culture. To suddenly come along and make drastic changes to a ceremony that they’ve been dreaming about for years is not so different from taking the kiss out of a wedding ceremony.

  1. I don’t understand the need to get rid of these titles. I worked in a private school and see this move towards removing competition in school all the time. I’m not sure it’s a good thing or a fair way to prepare kids for the real world. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It seems a bit too much like coddling and homogenizing, doesn’t it Kira-Marie? This particularly so, when you consider that some schools are also banning the wearing of regalia associated with the National Honors Society and other student groups because some students might feel left out. Students have five years of high school to get involved if they don’t want to feel left out. Why ban the regalia that some really hard workers have earned because others chose not to take up the challenge?

  2. I do not agree with taking these titles away. It seems like society today is so concerned with offending others that they have made it almost not ok to celebrate ones hard work and efforts.

    1. I think you’ve hit the issue here, spot on Taria! It’s as if we’re afraid to celebrate anything but sameness and mediocrity.

    1. You have to wonder if that isn’t part of the motivation, don’t you janice? I guess once they start to act on these decisions, we’ll soon see who fills the gap…

  3. To tell the truth, I’ve never thought much about this. I didn’t even attend my university graduation ceremony. They weren’t handing out diplomas there anyway. We had to come back an pick them up the next week. All I wanted was the degree. I did not really identify strongly with the university and the ceremony meant nothing to me. I had much more school spirit in high school where I knew more people. I did attend that graduation. Most of us didn’t really care about the speeches by the adults.

    I don’t mind seeing the valedictorian and salutatorian positions go. I’d rather see a competition between those who are Summa cum laude enter a speech competition and have the senior class officers and the other honor students vote for the speeches they think are most representative of their views. The two winners would give the speeches.

    1. I think that’s a great way to replace the positions without leaving the gap in the ceremony, Barb. But I do think the students should be involved in some way when it comes to giving the speeches. Especially in high school, it’s their chance to have a voice.

  4. I don’t understand their reasoning on this. Sounds like another way to keep every one in the same category. Almost like they are afraid to offend someone. Competition is good among students. The one who really wants it, will compete to get it.

    1. I do agree that the competition can be an issue if it gets to the point where students are refusing to collaborate on projects, or registering for bird courses just to boost their GPA. But there must be better ways to address that sort of unhealthy competition. Why not take the degree of difficulty for courses into consideration when selecting the valedictorian? And why not prefer students who can balance collaboration with competition?

      There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They just need to change the water.

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