The Tyranny of Averages

I recently had a friend graduate from a high school in North Carolina.  Though she was an outstanding and involved student, when it came time to graduate, the administrators of her school imposed a rule limiting graduates to two cords only.  Their rationale?  They did not want to injure the self confidence of those who did not receive honor cords by allowing others to wear several.

This is the epitome of the tyranny of averages.  My friend was a student who had made it her business to distinguish herself from her peers in the most admirable way; she worked hard to achieve outstanding grades and deserved an outstanding recognition at graduation.

During the ceremony, the principal asked students who had earned certain designations to stand and be recognized. These included achieving a top-30 class rank, membership in the school’s service society, and being a district scholar, among other distinctions. My friend stood for all but one of these awards.  Though the principal recognized these students in front of the school, it was a poor substitute for the quiet and individualized honor that comes with wearing hard-earned graduation cords. The recognition portion of the graduation program was more an exercise in how well students could stand up and sit down without losing their balance.

The administration wanted to protect the feelings of those students without cords.  But at whose expense? A generic round of applause is a fleeting thing, especially when it is not directed at you specifically…you can’t take it home or display it, or pose for pictures with it. People looking at you in a crowd won’t know you’ve just received a great round of applause.  The pride of higher achieving students was compromised when the administration limited them to two cords.  They strove for excellence, and they were rewarded with a pat on the head by the school.

This may seem like a trivial issue, but what is most disturbing here is the underlying mentality that facilitates these kinds of administrative decisions.  What type of precedent does it  set? Should we be telling future generations, “It’s okay if you make Cs on your report card, because you are going to get the same recognition and public respect as the kids who make As”?

This standard is dangerous because it allows sub-par performance to share the stage with greatness.  It is standards of this vein that drive our society.  There are no losers, there are only people who did their best.  It is a slippery slope towards chronic under-performance. If excellence is not rewarded, what is the motivation for performance?  If everybody feels that they have a right to get their  “fair share” of recognition where does this attitude end?

My friend, at the behest of her mother and sister, ended up graduating wearing three cords–one more than the permitted two. Her third cord belonged to her older sister, who had graduated from high school three years prior and had been allowed to wear as many cords as she could earn.  Several students approached my friend in a tizzy as they lined up for processional, demanding to know how she got a third cord.  She told them, and they calmed down. A teacher approached her and asked if she was supposed to be wearing the cord.

“No…” she truthfully replied.
“Well, what are you going to do with it?” asked the teacher.
“Wear it,” my friend said firmly.
“Okay,” said the teacher, and walked away.

So the moral of the story is that it’s wrong to belittle outstanding achievements in the name of maintaining equality.  People just want to be recognized for their value. For most, recognition is not a vanity to be flaunted, or disrupt the order of things.  Instead, recognition is their badge of honor, the reward for their efforts.  They want to wear it quietly, and let others take it for what it’s worth.

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