by Brett Vaden
Last week, National Society Honor students at Plano Senior High School were told they would not be allowed to wear their NHS stoles at graduation. When questioned about the policy, the principal said no club regalia was allowed at graduation. A NHS sponsor said that school officials didn’t want any students to feel excluded or to single anyone out.
I don’t know why this policy came about at Plano Senior High. Maybe if I did I would be more sympathetic with their actions. However, I strongly doubt that singling out certain praiseworthy students who’ve demonstrated “excellence in the areas of scholarship, leadership, service, and character” could seriously harm other students.
True, it would exclude many, and it may occasion envy and smugness in not a few. At the worst, I could imagine a severely depressed boy or girl that might fall to the temptation to despair, interpreting exclusion as one more proof of worthlessness. (For such unfortunate souls, almost everything in their life could serve as such a proof.)
But every good thing is liable to corruption or misuse, and the solution to its preservation cannot and never should be its destruction. Giving honor to those who deserve honor may indeed elicit bad responses, e.g., envy, smugness, despair, but should we then withhold honor from the honorable?
No, and one reason we shouldn’t is that by recognizing and praising students for their achievements we not only confirm the good in them but also in others. Every young person’s conscience (so far as it functions rightly) tells them the truth about what’s praiseworthy. Students know that knowledge is better than ignorance, leadership and service than laziness or ambivalence, and virtue than vice. When well-meaning adults attempt to mute the differences between student achievement, they may succeed in elevating poor achiever’s self-esteem, but at a high cost. Esteem that’s built on the sandy foundation of unmerited praise won’t stand the hard truth when it finally crashes down.
Students–especially adolescents who will soon leave home–need the truth. To shield them from all sense of underachievement will only make them more vulnerable to defeat later on. We should level with students when they don’t perform as well as they could. And just as we give them the freedom to fail (as David Wright eloquently puts it), we should also give them the prospect of real success and honor.