Tures: Valedictorian and salutatorian traditions

Published 12:58 pm Thursday, May 16, 2019

John Tures
Professor of political science at LaGrange College

It’s hard to imagine a graduation without a valedictorian, or a salutatorian, being honored, or some award to recognize a student, and even have them speak. But while such traditions and honors are being canceled across the country, it’s nice to see some places buck this fad, keeping the academic competition that frequently brings out the best in students.

University of Kentucky Professor John Thelin contends that the practice goes back to the College of William and Mary, three years before the American Revolution.

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Thankfully, such a trend hasn’t hit everywhere yet. One of my favorite days of the year is Honors Day, where our students from across a variety of departments have their students compete. Armed with papers, posters, prezis, powerpoints and projects, they battle it out for a series of awards in categories with a large ceremony afterward where the winners are loudly cheered by their classmates. I use that as a huge motivation for our Senior Seminar class all semester, exhorting our students to do their best like a college football coach pacing the sidelines, spending hours working with them so they’ll produce their best. Whether they win or not, our nominees have used this competition as a springboard for law school, graduate schools, and success in the business world or government. There’s nothing unhealthy about being challenged to do your best.

On that day, a student is selected to receive the Waights G. Henry Award, and deliver an address to the college. We’ve had a range of winners, unique in diversity, but united in classroom excellence and service to the community.

It’s a practice local high schools seem to be doing as well. While Thelin documents cases where minorities and women have been passed over, or forced to share the honors with others, our local Troup County High School awarded Shekinah Hall, the daughter of Liberian immigrants (dad’s a Chemistry Professor at our college) the Valedictorian distinction a few years ago, while she was taking several LaGrange College courses. She recently received a top award at Georgia Tech in public policy.

Hopefully, our colleges and high schools will understand the importance of inspiring students to do their best in a friendly and fair competition, and not bow to the craze of taking that opportunity away from those eager for a challenge.

And congratulations, Class of 2019, for college and high school students alike, as well as their parents, siblings, teachers and professors.