Valedictorians Slam School in Graduation Speeches: The Righteousness of Speaking Truth to Power

The high school diploma is a largely meaningless piece of paper. One does not need a high school diploma to get most any job, nor is it needed to get into any respected American college or university. The high school graduation, on the other hand, is a highly valued and meaningful tradition for many graduating seniors, parents, grandparents, and teachers. It is a way to celebrate a shared experience between generations, an experience with its share of adolescent joys (for many) and miseries (for most all). It is also seen by many as a coming of age ceremony.

However, with the proliferation of graduation ceremonies (to include middle school, elementary school, kindergarten, and pre-school graduations), and the artificial extension of childhood into adolescence (and college, and beyond), the high school graduation is beginning to resemble a glorified high school assembly.[1] And high school assemblies can be frightening experiences for high school administrators who want absolute control. That is why students are rarely given a platform at assemblies. In order to maintain control over what they view as a large group of potentially unruly teenagers who cannot be trusted, administrators enforce strict rules of behavior, and they dictate the schedule and content of the assembly.

The high school graduation has traditionally given one student the opportunity to have a platform in front of their peers, school administrators, teachers, and the wider community. This is a unique opportunity not only because students are rarely (if ever) given a platform in school, but also because the traditional means of social control that a school wields over students, by way of punishments, mostly no longer exist. It is difficult to mark down a student’s GPA or class rank, or expel them from school when there is no more school to be had. That student who gets to give a graduation speech all of a sudden finds herself in the rare position to speak truth to power without a looming threat of being crushed for it.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the one student a school would allow to have a platform to speak is the one that they can trust the most to stay in line.[2] That student is the valedictorian, the student who climbed to the top of the rankings, above all their peers, by playing the game according to the rules laid out by the administration. Students who are vying for the top spot are typically the ones most eager to please those in power. They are less likely to make a stir, or question the institution that reaffirms their self-worth on the basis of their compliance and performance on required tasks.[3][4]

Over 37,000 valedictorians speak at their high school graduations each year. Over 37,000 of those speeches fly under the radar because they all tend to follow a similar narrative: thank yous (to teachers, parents, and sometimes God), inspirational quotes, funny anecdotes and inside jokes, self-praise for four years of tireless effort, premature life advice to fellow graduates, and promises of future success to all the students who did not earn the right to speak. But every once in a while, a valedictorian steps out of character, and speaks truth to power, and it is glorious when it happens, and becomes viral if videotaped.

The system, imposed upon us by tradition, has separated true education from academic achievement.
— Attributed to Jonathan Chu

Last year, a truly remarkable speech (posted above) was given by young man who admits that his standing as valedictorian of Granite Bay High School (CA), and his opportunity to speak, were made possible by his commitment to playing a game at the cost of his own social isolation.[5] He acknowledged that other students worked harder than him, and others were more talented, but none of them played the game as well as he did. A 4.63 GPA was the score that won him the game, and all he had to sacrifice for it was forgoing opportunities for personal development. He admits that a GPA does not account for “extracurricular involvement, social awareness, or how much was learned.” Instead, he indicts the system for undermining education by placing a priority on academic achievement over true education. A system that encourages the most ambitious to learn to navigate the system instead of learning to master their own lives, and to chart their own course. A system that allows for a winner only by creating a bunch of losers.

This year, another notable speech (posted here) was given by Peter Butera who graduated as valedictorian of Wyoming Area Secondary Center in Pennsylvania. Not only was he valedictorian, he was also class president, a position that he indicated meant a lot to him because it was chosen by his peers. However, the speech he gave deviated from the speech he submitted to the administration for approval. He used his platform to point out that students have no real power at the school, not even the class president, which he said could be more accurately called “class party-planner.” He says that the problem, which also prevents students from developing their leadership skills, stems primarily from “the authoritative attitude that a few teachers, administrators, and board members have.” Proving his point, the administrators then cut his mic and Principal Jon Pollard told him to sit down.[6][7]

These speeches are not the first to call out the institution of schooling, or at least the practices of their respective schools. For example, Erica Goldson, the 2010 valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York, gave a wonderful speech (posted below) about the flawed institution of schooling at her graduation ceremony. But because these speeches go viral when they are given, even though they account for fewer than 0.003% of all graduation speeches, in addition to the heightened anxiety authoritarian administrators have about their relative lack of control over graduating seniors, more and more schools are taking steps to keep the speakers in line. Some are considering establishing formal guidelines and restrictions for the speeches, while others are doling out punishments such as refusing to give a speaker their diploma based on the content of their speech.[9][10] Additionally, thousands upon thousands of schools require speakers to submit their speeches for approval before they are permitted to take the stage, with the threat of having their microphones cut if they do not stick to the approved script. [11] And in the case of Devan Solanki, the 2015 valedictorian of Lodi High School in New Jersey, school officials were so threatened by his potential speech that they preemptively stripped him of his opportunity to speak.[12]

These selected instances of privileged students using their limited platforms to bring awareness to the failings of schools, as well as the negative media coverage that often accompanies censorship efforts by the schools, are a small but growing threat to traditional schools in an era when more and more families are recognizing that there are real, meaningful, and accessible alternatives to school.[13] Moving forward we hope to see more students speaking truth to power at graduation, although doing so will ultimately result in the death of the valedictory speech. Even better, would be seeing millions of students recognizing their lack of autonomy, and the lack of an opportunity to experience a meaningful education in the authoritarian, hierarchical, rank-based traditional schooling structure, and choosing instead to opt out of school so that they can engage in self-directed learning.

1.     See Dr. Robert Epstein’s book The Case Against Adolescence for an introduction on the extension of childhood into adolescence, and Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult for a glimpse into how unprepared even the highest performing high school graduates are for college and life.,   

2.     Some schools may allow more than one student to speak at graduation. These are often salutatorians, class presidents, or faculty selected class day speakers.

3.     Students who focus on performing along the measures laid out by adults, and outperforming all of their peers, and sticking to the rules and conventions of the institution often do ok in life. They tend to go to college and graduate, and get good jobs. But they rarely change the world because they rarely challenge the status quo.

4.     Some parents may consider prestigious degrees, prestigious jobs, and financial security to be a worthwhile outcome, but they should consider what someone loses when they go down this path. What is not often considered is how empathy is lost in the competitive process, as well as creativity, emotional and mental well-being, personal relationships, and the ability to find meaning in life. Also, not considered is the reality that if the goal is to be number one, then everyone but one person winds up a failure.

5.     My research leads me to believe that remarkable young man is named Jonathan Chu, who graduated in 2016, and likely matriculated at the University of California, Los Angeles. His recognition of how flawed his high school experience was will hopefully allow him to take better advantage of his college experience, and prepare him to create opportunities for the future as opposed to accepting those that are provided to him. Surprisingly, I could find no news articles covering this speech. I did find a cached article that spoke of Jonathan’s views.

6.     The Washington Post did a great write-up of the speech and the motivations behind it.

7.     Peter, who is heading to Villanova University next year, was invited on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to explain what happened and to finish his speech. What he would have said, had they let him finish, was that he hoped that in the future “[administrators] will begin to prioritize education itself, as well as the empowering of students.”

8.     Erica, who matriculated at the University of Buffalo, posted the full text of her speech on her personal blog:

9.     Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana made news in 2008 when they considered mandating English-only speeches after Louisiana State University bound co-valedictorians and cousins, Hue and Cindy Vo, interspersed lines of Vietnamese in their majority English speeches. Interestingly, Terrebonne Parish is the state’s French speaking stronghold, and schools had punished previous generations of children who dared to speak French at schools.,

10.  Kaitlin Nootbaar, the 2012 valedictorian of Prague High School in Oklahoma, was denied her diploma because she quoted a line from a Twilight movie that included the word “hell.” Despite being denied her diploma, Kaitlin matriculated at Southwestern Oklahoma State University on a full-ride scholarship.

11.  In 2013, Harold Shaw, Jr., salutatorian of Wharton High School in Florida had his mic cut after he allegedly went off script on his speech. However, the real motivation may have been that administrators were upset that the University of Florida bound student published a video on his Facebook page documenting the deplorable bathroom conditions at the school.

12.  Devan, who was heading to Harvard after graduation, was additionally suspended, and then forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in order to graduate. The school took an absurdly literal interpretation of Devan’s statement, "I just want to resolve this peacefully," as he pled his case that he should be allowed to speak at graduation. However, a fellow student suggested that the real reason they barred him from speaking was because he was often “standing up for either the whole class or specific students” when they faced unfair treatment by the school.,

13.  There are now numerous self-directed learning centers (including Abrome) and democratic schools peppered throughout the country. In areas that do not have such learning centers, or for families who may not be able to afford such options, homeschooling and unschooling remains a viable alternative.