The problem with valedictorians

Here’s to the ‘humbilitorians,’ for whom the educational process does not come easily

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Every May, colleges trot out their straight-A students to give valedictory speeches. These are the unusual students who made their way through a complicated system, complying with the diverse, often obscure, and even arbitrary wants of a variety of professors, without tripping or stumbling. This is a difficult task and worthy of admiration.

As for the words themselves, the typical valedictory speech asserts that life is about accepting challenges and the role of determination in success.

Certainly, these straight-A students know about the type of determination that leads to good grades, which are primarily a product of diligence, persistence and a good dose of “school savvy.” However, I question whether the valedictorians are in fact the ones who know the most about trying, risk-taking or even the value of late-nighters. In fact, to understand such issues, you need to experience the failures where you learn about your social and intellectual limits.

Our colleges teach about this too. In fact, such skill is among the most important things taught. Through experience, rather than explicit instruction, schools also teach about human qualities—some good and some not so good—that are important. And often the ones who know best about such human qualities are not straight-A students; in fact, there are a number of things that schools teach that straight-A students, by definition, never learn.

This is because the B’s, C’s and D’s distributed liberally in our education systems also teach. Recipients learn something about the limitations of themselves and the system, albeit perhaps not as much about “the subject” as the valedictorians.

Thus, in honor of the B, C and D students, the many humbled students of the past and future—one might call them humbilitorians—I dedicate this essay. I would like to review here some of the many things that they may know from experience but straight-A students know only from books.

1. Humbilitorians know how it is to study really hard something that the professor does not ask about on an exam.

2. They know best that teachers and professors are not are not always fair or infallible in their grading; valedictorians, in contrast, assume that low grades are only the fault of the recipients.

3. Some humbilitorians know what it feels like to take exams while hung over—this is a surefire way to do poorly on the exam—both because it means you were drinking when you should have been studying and it is hard to take an exam with a terrible headache.

4. Only humbilitorians might know what it is like to take a class outside their major, really enjoy the experience, and still get a B-.

5. They may know what it is like to respond to an urgent call from home about a sick sibling, parent or grandparent and then return sheepishly to confront university regulations prohibiting late withdrawals without penalty.

6. They often know more precisely what their limits are for number of units attempted and hours at a minimum wage job, as they try to pay their way through college. Because they’re unable to please both bosses and teachers, their grades often suffer.

7. Humbilitorians know that volunteering for charities, fraternities, recycling programs and student government programs can result in lower grades.

8. They know that skills can be developed across time and classes and use their college career to do this; this is why students often starting out as freshmen with 2.3 GPAs can end up with 3.5 GPAs as seniors.

9. They may know what it is like, in a flight of whimsy, to craft a particularly creative exam answer that is unrelated to the assigned topic and get nailed, irrespective of originality.

10. They learn from experience that what seemed brilliant or clever at 4:30 a.m. can sound pretty stupid when written in an un-proofread paper.

11. They value lecture and classroom time because they have cut class and know doing so leads to lower grades.

12. Many know what happens when you switch your major between such subjects as drama and engineering.

13. They are more likely to know how distracting the excitement and heartbreak of love during the semester is.

14. They are more likely to come from the wrong side of the tracks and not have parental and sibling coaching about muddling through a middle-class institution.

15. They do not avoid the hard graders and never hear about classes where you get an A for little effort.

16. Students receiving a low grades now and then recognize early that perfection in all things is not necessarily an essential goal for its own sake, or even possible.

As individuals, we have limits in what we do, and how we organize our lives with respect to school, family, work, volunteer work and social life matters. Most students bump up against these limits—whether because of partying, family sentiment, over-commitment, broad interests or other factors.

As a teacher, I am never sure whether I prefer the humbilitorian or the valedictorian.

The valedictorian student is typically a self-starter who does high-quality work and intuitively knows how the system works. He or she rarely makes excuses, listens carefully, writes well, does the assigned reading on time and asks good questions. He or she also sets a good example for the rest of the students, which we use to set a challenging pace.

But, often I wonder how much we at the university do for such self-starters, in terms of challenge or their own intellectual development. Perhaps, like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, they need the affirmation of the degree, the honor of the valedictorian speech or Phi Beta Kappa pin, and certainly we should provide such deserved rewards.

In contrast, when the future humbilitorians arrive at college, they do not always come to class, do the reading on time, write well, organize their time, prioritize tasks independently or know how to resist social temptation. But guess what. That 18 year-old freshman who was hopeless at such tasks and collected the C’s, D’s and F’s to show it, when finally graduating four (or more) years later, can do these things. Ultimately, I believe those students, sitting quietly in the hot May sun, are as important or even more important products of our educational system than the valedictorians sitting up front.

Tony Waters is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at California State University, Chico. He is the author of Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999) and Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan: The Limitations of Humanitarian Relief Operations (Westview 2001)