We all are born with an inherent desire for validation. This trait, though more prevalent in some of us than others, could be recognized in ourselves and in our peers from the very beginning. When we were babies, we would get excited by a new toy or game and immediately look to our parents for them to substantiate this delight. We were incentivized to learn to crawl and then to walk by their incessant coos of praise. As we grew older we learned to seek more tangible vehicles of validation — ribbons and medals from sports games, report cards and academic certificates of achievement — not just from our parents but from other respected authorities in our lives. These sources of validation, though they may change shape, remain persistent throughout our entire lives.
When I was in the eleventh grade, my family moved cities and so I made the move to a new high school. The high school I came from was as progressive as they come — we called our teachers by their first names, didn’t have AP classes and our only dress code was that we couldn’t expose our undergarments and had to wear shoes at all times. The school I moved to was a much more conservative all-girls school with honors and AP classes and a uniform involving a polo and pleated skirt. During my second semester at my new school, I learned that they had a ceremony every spring that celebrated the girls who were cum laude, a practice with which I was entirely unfamiliar. The girls whose grades landed them at the top 10 percent of the class walked across the stage one day in assembly, shook our headmistress’s hand, received a certificate and became inducted into the cum laude society.
People had very opposing views on this custom. Having not yet completed three full semesters at this new school, I was not eligible to receive the honor and thus was left in an unbiased position — I wasn’t bitterly against it because I didn’t receive it and I wasn’t excitedly supportive of it because I did. But still, I felt unsettled by the cum laude tradition. The school I came from would never have even thought to rank its students, nonetheless wave their achievements in front of the rest of the school. I couldn’t understand the desire to flaunt before all of the students that also worked incredibly hard and I know so many other students shared this discomfort. And yet, entry into the cum laude society remained an incredibly sought-after source of validation.
My math teacher compared the celebration of cum laude students with the accolade that our student-athletes received consistently throughout their seasons. Athletes are always being publicly acknowledged and supported for their achievements with dozens of spectators at all of their competitions and publications of goals scored and records broken. Why, then, is it wrong for us to do the same, she argued, in academia?
We were confronted with a similar issue two Mondays ago when a couple of students pulled a prank during Robert Shiller’s Introductory Macroeconomics class, citing him as “talking about his Nobel Prize more than anyone else.” Though many other obvious issues come to mind when confronted with this story, more deeply rooted in this hideous prank is the question of how we should maneuver our discussion of our accomplishments. For Professor Shiller, I assume that when he is referencing his Nobel Prize, he is not referencing his prize as much as he is referencing the research and studies he spent years on that led to his being awarded the prize. But still, why does the mention of his achievement cause such discomfort for those around him?
Just like the cum laude society — but obviously to a much greater degree — Nobel Prizes exist not only to acknowledge incredible accomplishments but also to drive them. It’s reasonable to wonder if we would work as hard as we do if these prizes of validation didn’t exist to motivate us. But more than that, these prizes can act not just as a source of validation for those that receive them, but also as a source of invalidation for those that do not. Those who work just as hard and almost make the cut but do not are left feeling null, and that sense of insignificance is even furthered by our society’s celebration of the winners, the champions, the success stories.
As a society, we should continue to recognize the accomplishments of our best scholars while finding a way to celebrate other kinds of success. Yale has already made a step in this direction, by awarding Teaching Prizes to the University’s notable professors who may not have discovered the Case-Shiller Index but, year after year, successfully teaches a profound understanding of the complexities of econometrics. We must continue to find more ways to validate the diverse strengths of our community.
Ally Daniels is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.