Life is competition, all the way up the chain. Sacrificing this truth on the altar of popular opinion and political correctness and you deny nature.
T-cells tackle a virus. Crabgrass competes with Kentucky bluegrass. Bull elk joust for mates during the rut. Siblings rival and a toddler resents his mother’s breast being given over to a new infant sister. Young men flex their biceps to win the favor of a girl. Darkness encroaches on light. Good battles evil. Competition permeates it all.
Why do we water it down? We're presumably afraid to damage the fragile egos of those who are not named valedictorian or salutatorian. Regardless of good intention, this hobbles and handicaps a kid, and sends him out with an incomplete understanding of the value of competition. We imply that high personal achievement is not all that important because in the end, everybody is a winner. Everyone gets a trophy.
By what of excellence? Should it be held high and praised? Throughout history, this recognition has shown itself in the "hero archetype." Joseph Campbell wrote of it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero endures sacrifice and privation and challenge. If he survives, he returns to share the gifts and knowledge he has gained, thereby improving the lot of mankind.
If we fail to celebrate and model this excellence, we lower the bar for all of us and settle on mediocrity as the norm. So we recognize the gold, silver, and bronze medals on the Olympic podium. The league MVP. Employee of the Month. The Pulitzer. The Nobel. The Medal of Honor. The valedictorian and the salutatorian.
In 2010, documentary filmmaker Tim Heatherington interviewed Staff Sergeant Salvatore Guinta about his experiences with the Army’s 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Heatherington asked: “What went through your head when you heard you were going to be up for a Medal of Honor?”
SSgt Guinta replied:
“’Fuck you.’ … It sounds great in theory, it sounds really awesome in theory, but… it’s not. I mean, what’s it worth? Brennan? Mendoza? No. Is it worth them? No. . . . . It's worth a lot. I don’t want to downplay it at all. … the Medal of Honor is the greatest, given to just some real tough guys out there, doing shit for other people, that isn’t necessary. But they do it. And that’s not me. I didn’t do shit. I did what I did because in the scheme of this whole painting the picture of that ambush, that was just my brushstroke. It’s not above and beyond. That picture wouldn’t have been complete without that brushstroke, and it was my brushstroke to take. … This is the nation’s highest honor. Awesome. And it’s given to me? Okay. But just as much as me, every single person I’ve been with deserves to wear it.”
Apparently, collaboration and recognition of high excellence are not mutually exclusive.
The Medal of Honor was hung around Sal Guinta’s neck not because he was trying to earn a medal. Not because he wanted it and definitely not because he thought he deserved it. He wasn’t recognized because the other soldiers in Battle Company were any less selfless or less courageous than he in the middle of that firefight. That medal was hung on Sal Guinta because we needed to recognize and honor the selflessness to which we all might aspire.
As each year of high school comes to a close, we recognize two graduating seniors as valedictorian and salutatorian not because they need it, but because we do. We need a place to point and say, “There is striving. There is achievement. There is excellence.”
We need it because it shows us a path. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell said of our individual hero’s journey:
“…we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have one before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. …where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
If we are to “follow the thread of the hero-path,” we must be able to see where those have tread before us.
Name the valedictorian.