Long considered a high honor, the valedictorian tradition faces an uncertain future

As college and high school graduations take place, thousands of select students will step to podiums to deliver their graduating class’s farewell remarks at commencement ceremonies throughout the United States.

These students – usually the graduating seniors with the highest grade point average, or GPA – are recognized with a formal title: valedictorians.

Though the tradition goes back to colonial times, the validity of valedictorian honor is increasingly being called into question. A growing number of schools are changing how they bestow the honor or doing away with it altogether.

For instance, this is the last year there will be a valedictorian at William Mason High School, an Ohio school that is one of the best regarded in the nation. School leaders announced May 9 that the school would no longer have a class valedictorian or salutatorian as of next year, citing “unhealthy competitiveness among students.”

As an education historian, Mason High School’s decision underscores what I see as a long-standing problem in American education: Our emphasis on competition and awards in academics sometimes leads to problematic measurements of learning.

A question of honor

Recent news reports call into question whether the valedictorian honor is truly about merit or hobbled by biases of race and class.

Similar questions are being asked about American higher education in the wake of this year’s college admission scandal. Indeed, in a growing number of cases, students who have earned the top grades in their graduating class – but who happen to be more have darker skin hues than their peers of European descent – are finding themselves being asked to share their valedictory glory with other students. But before we get into those examples, a little history on the origin of the valedictorian is in order.

Roots in the colonial college

The tradition of selecting a valedictorian goes back to 1772 at The College of William & Mary.

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 “valedīcere,” 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.

Valedictorians in high school

By 1920 many American public high schools had adopted the practice of awarding honors, including valedictorian. Latin oratory gave way to the top GPA as the criterion for selecting the valedictorian.

Historical perspective complicates the measuring of scholarly performance. While high academic achievement is admired and coveted today, this was not always so in American colleges. The “Gentleman C” was the appropriate grade sought by socially prestigious students. An “A” was scorned as “poor form,” as documented in my 2019 book, “A History of American Higher Education.”

In the Yale yearbook of 1904, the senior class actually boasted of its low academic achievement, noting:

Never since the Heavenly Host with all the Titans Fought Saw they a class whose scholarship approached so close to naught