Valedictorian Madness

A New Yorker article that Chris Yeh writes about affirms two things in my mind: 1) I’m glad my high school doesn’t do the valedictorian thing, and 2) That I’m not even close to being of valedictorian status doesn’t mean anything in my quest to think different and change the world.

“In 1981, two professors…began following the lives of eighty-one high-school valedictorians…According to Arnold’s 1995 book “Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians,” these students continued to distinguish themselves academically in college; a little less than sixty per cent pursued graduate studies. By their early thirties, most were “working in high-level, prestigious, secure professions”—they were lawyers, accountants, professors, doctors, engineers. Arnold totted up fifteen Ph.D.s, six law degrees, three medical degrees, and twenty-two master’s degrees in her group. The valedictorians got divorced at a lower rate than did the population at large, were less likely to use alcohol and drugs, and tended to be active in their communities.

At the same time, Arnold, who stays in touch with her cohort, has found that few of the valedictorians seem destined for intellectual eminence or for creative work outside of familiar career paths. Dedicated to the well-rounded ideal—to be a valedictorian, after all, you must excel in classes that don’t interest you or are poorly taught—the valedictorians had “used their strong work ethic to pursue multiple academic and extracurricular interests. None was obsessed with a single talent area to which he or she subordinated school and social involvement.” This marks a difference, Arnold said, from what we know about many eminent achievers, who tend to evince an early passion for a particular field. For these people, Arnold writes, a “powerful early interest evolves into lifelong, intensive, even obsessive involvement in the talent area.” She goes on, “Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.” Valedictorians, by contrast, conformed to the expectations of school and carefully chose careers that were likely to be socially and financially secure: “As a rule, valedictorians relegated their early interests to hobbies, second majors, or regretted dead ends. The serious athletes among the valedictorians never pursued sports occupations. Most of the high school musicians hung up their instruments during college.”

Chris goes on to say:

“In other words, while valedictorians do well, most of those who are most successful in life were definitely not valedictorians. Let me emphasize one line from the quote above: Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.

School isn’t like real life. In fact, it’s about as far from real life as can be imagined. The lessons that let you be successful in school (follow the rules, work hard, know the right answers) are completely the opposite of those that help you become a successful entrepreneur (change the rules, work smart, know the right questions).”

Ah, I sleep easier.

5 comments on “Valedictorian Madness
  • I think that is a motivational article. I feel like at UHS there is so much emphasis on being well rounded that people don’t have time to do what they enjoy. It’s nice to know that it is possible to succeed and not be entirely well rounded.

  • That article definately made my evening. It seems that the unavoidable college discussion has been creeping its way into my normally pleasant conversations with my friends. I’ve heard countless people say that were they to repeat the high school app. process, they would choose Washington, do fewer extra-cirricular activities, and strive to be Valedictorian of their class. It’s something of a relief to hear that these achievements aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, from a more reliable than my parents. Anyway, thanks, and keep truckin.

  • Great post and you ought to sleep easier! This sums up knowledge that took me roughly 20 years to assimilate. Good on you for cluing in early!

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