Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Honors Night

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n the U.S., May is the month in which many high schools hold their "honors" assemblies. In this long-awaited culmination of the school year, school officials recognize the achievements of individual students. In my own teaching experience, the program began with an inspirational speech, followed by numerous "secondary" awards—community awards, service awards, perfect attendance, and awards for hours of selfless volunteer work, for 'good character,' or for spearheading an important community project.

Then came the "minor" departmental awards—Art, Music, Industrial Education, Foreign Language, Office Occupations, Food Service, and Special Education. These awards praised students for the creativity and technique of their artistic or musical talent, for their outstanding ability to design and build a piece of furniture, and for exemplary performance in "job-related" learning.

Following that, the chairpersons of the "major" academic departments—Math, Science, English, and Social Studies—singled out their outstanding students, more often than not for their GPAs.

Tension built as the assembly moved toward the "really important" honors—the reading of the names of students with perfect GPAs, the winner of the 4-year full tuition college scholarship sponsored by a local business, and the announcement of the salutatorian and valedictorian of the graduating class.

Warms the heart, doesn't it—recognizing the accomplishments and hard work of students? But I would suggest that the tradition of "honors assemblies" could be the poster child for the elitist perceptions that make "equal opportunity" in public education little more than high-sounding, vote-getting buzzwords. Talk about a pecking order!

The clear message epitomized in such assemblies is that, regardless of the effort you've put into your education, regardless of the depth of your character, your talent and ability in art, music, theater, creative writing, woodworking, office administration, mechanics, foreign language, etc., you will always be considered "second class" compared to students who took nothing but honors academic classes and achieved A's in all of them. Lip service might be paid to your abilities and potential contribution to society, but don't ever expect to be recognized on a par with those people who had perfect GPAs in school.

I'm certainly not putting down academic ability, but I've known too many students whose high grade point averages were little more than an indicator that they were good at playing the school game. They were good at memorizing. They were good at producing what the teacher wanted. They were good at taking tests. Whether they had any depth or substance of character, whether they contributed in any way to their school or community, whether they were capable of creative or original thought was unimportant. In the eyes of academia, the GPA and test scores are the final arbiter of a student's 'success'—as well as the standard of comparison for the 'success,' or lack thereof, of every other student, regardless of their effort and ability.

School officials always seemed disappointed that more students didn't attend Honors Night. Personally, I think they were pretty bright. Only a masochist wants to be reminded that, no matter how hard they work, it would never be enough.


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