A salute to graduates | Age of entitlement threatens tradition of valedictorian

It’s graduation season. Caps and gowns. Proud parents and families. Joyous graduates. And the well-deserved ritual of paying honor to those who have excelled in their studies.

For as long as I can remember, one of the major highlights of the graduation ceremony was the tribute paid to the person selected as valedictorian. The top student could rightfully revel in his or her achievements. Public recognition of superior effort and scholarship was more than a reward for the deserving; it was also meant to inspire others to aim high and to hopefully reach the peak of their potential.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech

But today times have changed. It seems the class valedictorian is fast becoming an endangered species. Not that the title no longer exists. It’s just that its definition has been changed so much that it threatens to become more and more meaningless.

Who is today’s valedictorian? At first I thought it was a joke, but it seems instead it’s a trend. This year Oregon’s South Medford High has 21 valedictorians. Ringgold High School in Pennsylvania graduated 24 valedictorians out of a class of 251 seniors. Enterprise High in Alabama, as reported by NBC News, boasts 34 graduates granted this distinction.

I imagine we can soon look forward to an entire class being designated as valedictorians — so as not to hurt the feelings of anyone who in this age of entitlement can’t understand why they are not equally deserving of honor.

Some progressive schools today are doing away with the concept of grades for the very same reason. They believe that for a child to be told that he’s “not as smart” could be very damaging to his psyche. Even sporting events in some places no longer keep score, because that would only reinforce the politically incorrect idea of winners and losers.

What’s behind this fear of acknowledging superiority?

A terrible misunderstanding of the ideal of equality — a distortion that has turned the noble concept of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” into the bizarre notion that recognition of greater achievement and excellence of others must be renounced as alien to the concept of democracy.

The American founding fathers never meant to assert the false notion that all of us share identical intellects, skills or talents. It is self-evident that we are all not equal in many ways. There are people who are smarter, more athletic, more artistic, more musically talented and gifted in a host of other ways than I am. What the Constitution so powerfully granted us was an equality more fundamental than physical or mental attributes — the equality of man before God and the law.

And yes, we are equally entitled to “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness,” but that doesn’t remove from us the obligation to respect those who have achieved more than we did, to pay tribute to those who by dint of effort or godly gifts have gone beyond our abilities, and to acknowledge those who are worthy of admiration and emulation.

The Torah long ago made clear this distinction. Moses was the greatest leader of our people. Indeed, according to Maimonides, one of the 13 principles of our faith is that “there has not arisen in Israel anyone like Moses.”  Yet during his tenure there were those who questioned Moses’ authority. The Torah tells us that Korach, a prominent descendent of Levi, together with 250 princes of the congregation, led a rebellion on a platform that was seemingly rooted in the ideal of democracy. “You take too much upon yourself, seeing that the entire congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you lift yourselves up above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3.) All of us are equal. We are just as good as you are. What Korach demanded was that everybody be accorded the same honor as Moses.

Korach confused the congregation’s status as holy, automatically granted to them from birth as children of God created in the divine image, with the far greater spiritual level of the man who earned the right to eventually speak with God “face-to-face.” What Korach needed to learn was that even in a democratic society with equal rights, not everyone is equal in talent and influence.

When we fail to acknowledge this truth, we create a society devoted to deifying the mediocre and to downgrading the gifted.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the rabbi emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside, which he served for 37 years. This article first appeared at aish.com.