Remember the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland? The creatures “began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.” “But who has won?” the contestants asked when everyone stopped moving. At last the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” We thought of the Dodo’s approach to competition recently when reading about the decision of the Nashville, Tennessee school system to abolish its honor roll because it had become “an apparent source of embarrassment for some underachievers.” As The Washington Post reported, “after a few parents complained that their children might be ridiculed for not making the list, lawyers [it’s always the lawyers, isn’t it?] for the Nashville school system warned that state privacy laws forbid releasing any academic information, good or bad, without permission.”
Surely, we thought, this is to take a very parochial view of the matter. For if students might feel embarrassed about not making the honor roll, think of how embarrassed they would be if they were not the valedictorian, the winning quarterback, a national merit scholar, a prize-winning pianist, the homecoming queen, or one of the students accepted at Harvard. Think of how awful they would feel if it got out that they were not in every way as smart, as attractive, as talented, as successful as the lucky few who were, like Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich.” An honor roll, as its name suggests, is meant to honor, to give public recognition, to those who excel. It is a last, pale inheritance of the spiritual patrimony we have inherited from the ancient Greeks who strove to be the best—and to be publicly recognized for their achievements. Nashville, like so many other communities, has decided to side instead with the Dodo.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 7, on page 4
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