Some of you have heard the news that a local school board in Charlotte, North Carolina voted to eliminate the naming of valedictorians. The following appeared on FoxNews.com:
Citing what it calls “unhealthy” competition among students, the Wake County school board is the latest in the country to make valedictorians and salutatorians a thing of the past, The News & Observer of Charlotte reports. … [S]chool officials say singling out two people for their grade point averages just encourages students to take easy classes and to not help their classmates study.
It seems unlikely to me that there would be a lot of “competition” for just two slots. I think it’s more likely that 99% of the students would never even think they stood a chance and so would not engage in the competition described. Why work so hard for something that you’re not likely to get?
I graduated at the top of my class in Seminary and received a cash award (not a large one, I promise you) but it wasn’t as if I postured or took easy classes to get it. In fact, it never occurred to me that I would get a prize; I just studied hard because I enjoyed learning the faith.
Thus something tells me that the “explanation” offered by the school board is not the real reason. To quote an old Nat King Cole song, “Your story’s so touching, but it sounds just like a lie.”
Pardon me if I suspect old fashioned envy at work here. There are some who despise the fact that others excel because it makes them look worse by comparison. But such an attitude is classic envy: sorrow or sadness at the excellence of someone else because I take it to lessen my own.
Excellence is a beautiful thing, something to esteem and hold up before all. I would argue that it is yet another sign of the decline of our culture that we can’t seem to “tolerate” the celebration of excellence and achievement. Why is this? One reason is the tyranny of relativism. Another is obsessive, excessive concern for the feelings of others. But a more fundamental answer lies in the cardinal or deadly sin of envy.
What is envy? Most people today use the word as a synonym for jealousy. But traditionally, jealousy is not the same as envy.
When I am jealous of you, I want something that you have and wish to possess it, inordinately so. But the key point is that there is something good about you or something good you possess, which I want to have for myself.
In traditional theology, envy is quite different (cf. Summa Theologica, III IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else, because I take it to lessen my own. The key difference with envy is that (unlike with jealousy) I do not want to possess the good or excellence you have; rather, I want to destroy it.
Envy is diabolical – St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316), because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good. Scripture says, By the envy of the Devil death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve (made in the image of God) possessed, and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his, or so he thought, and he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Yes, envy is very ugly; it is diabolical.
The effect of the Wake County school board’s decision is to further suppress the praise of excellence. Excellence should be praised both for the gift that it is to the whole community as well as for the way it acts to encourage excellence in others! Decisions like this further minimize esteem for excellence and mute the encouragement of it.
Some will argue that academic excellence is but one sort of excellence. Is there not artistic excellence, emotional intelligence, and so forth? Certainly. Then find ways to honor those sorts of excellence as well. I paraded around my high school for three years sporting a “letter jacket” that broadcast my athletic excellence as part of the track and field team. The band issued “letter sweaters” to their best students.
Excellence is a blessing. I’m sorry if this implies that some are less excellent, but life is like that. Some people excel, some are also-rans, and some are even poor at certain things. (I never made the cut to become part of the math club but somehow I survived the blow to my ego.)
Count me among those who see the elimination of honors as another sign of an ailing culture. If we cannot honor excellence and achievement we have tipped our hat to what a great saint and learned man, St. Augustine, called a diabolical sin.
Is it too strong for me to say that Satan must be having a good laugh? When we are embarrassed or alarmed by excellence and even call it “unhealthy,” I can hear Satan gleefully crowing, “My perversion of them is almost complete. They are ashamed of their glory and they glory in their shame.”