Saturday, June 17, 2006

Valedictorians, Salutatorians and Speeches

Maria Glod has an article in today's Washington Post about the currently changing definitions of the words valedictorian and salutatorian.

But it is clear that there is no consensus among educators, or students, on defining valedictorians. In Fairfax County, the decision is made school by school. Edison High School has one valedictorian. But Principal Gregory Croghan said it has gotten so close -- with GPAs separated by only the tiniest fractions -- that he has decided to recommend a policy change to make everyone with a 4.0 or higher an "honor graduate."

Some schools even go so far as to have multiple valedictorians.

[W]hen Robinson Principal Dan Meier praised the school's top academic talent at commencement Thursday afternoon, nearly two full rows of graduates stood to be recognized as valedictorians.

To my Latin-student ear, that would indeed be a hellishly long commencement ceremony. As far as I'm concerned, you're not a valedictorian unless you give a valedictory speech. The literal meaning of the Latin roots of valedictorian is "the one who gives the farewell speech." Similarly, salutatorian means, "the one who gives the greeting speech."

One of my roommates during my abandoned graduate school career once admitted that he had been his high school's valedictorian. When I inquired as to the topic of his speech, he started to turn pale at the very thought of public speaking. Turns out, he hadn't given a speech. I immediately invoked Latin Student Snob Code Clause 43, "You're not a valedictorian unless you've given a valedictory speech. You may have been the top student in your class ranking, but you were definitely not valedictorian."

In the interest of self-disclosure, I must humbly admit that I was never in any jeopardy of attaining either valedictorian or salutatorian in my high school or college careers.

In my high school commencement, I recall that a single valedictorian and a single salutatorian actually gave speeches.

I went to a college in the late 80s and early 90s that had even abandoned class ranking in the 70s to help folks avoid the draft. As a result, there could be no top two students to give speeches. But commencement ceremonies are commencement ceremonies, and even the most avant-garde commencement ceremony requires speeches. Therefore, anyone who was interested in speaking at the ceremony had to submit their proposed speech to a board of faculty and students who would select the best two speeches. The end result was that we got some speeches that actually helped keep us awake, rather than dispense bromides.

You have to admit, there's no logical correlation between being one of the top two in class ranking and being a good speech writer or orator. Unless you're in a school specializing in rhetoric.

But please, let's reserve the words valedictorian and salutatorian for the folks who are the top two in their class, and who actually get up and talk a bit. Lest the wrath of young classicists be aroused.

Linking to: The Crazy Rants of Samantha Burns, Point Five, 7 Deadly Sins, Blue Star Chronicles, Stuck on Stupid, 123beta

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