All the feels for Talbot’s article titled “Best in Class.” Talbot follows the lives of valedictorians and the increasing competition of the title. What Talbot describes could be better characterized as warfare. In the opening anecdote, a student becomes Valedictorian by taking an easy introductory algebra class after figuring out that GPA ties are broken by amount of credits. The ensuing chaos involves parents, boycotts of graduation, and conflicts that divide not just the school but the entire town. As a result, the high school banned valedictorians and instead opted to recognize all students in the top ten percent of the class. Subsequent anecdotes describe schools where parents call school offices to figure out the rank of their child–who is often separated from the next by only one hundredth of a decimal place–to legal fights with out-of-court monetary settlements.
Talbot also cites a book called “Lives of Promise: What Happens to High School Valedictorians.” The book finds that Valedictorians never become exceptionally successful adults because they pursue financially safe careers and pursue multiple academic interests. Exceptionally successful adults, on the other hand, develop single passions early on and often recall not liking formal education. This reminded me of the Terman study, which tracked child geniuses throughout their lifetime. These “Termanites” were at best, above average in their adult careers while 2 children who were rejected from the study for having low IQs went on to win Nobel prizes.
While I was very interested on this 2005 take of high school pressure, I think the article fell short in some areas. Namely, there was a mention of general stress, but not that of the mental illness that develops in these settings. The article mentions “Stressed Out Students” a Bay Area focused program “pledged to make students and their parents less driven.” However, this wording neglects the heart of the issue–being driven is not the issue, but mental illness that constant internal and external pressure creates. I can say with confidence that Bay Area schools have only gotten worse with this regard and are now notorious hubs for suicide, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. I wonder if Talbot’s limited view was a product of the time (since I feel like mental illness in high pressure academic systems is a table topic now) or of her limited background in the actual experience.