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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Valedictorians — but not visionaries

Image result for valedictorian cartoon

“[Valedictorians] do well, but they don’t go on to change the world or lead the world. School rewards people who follow the rules, not people who shake things up,” Eric Barker, author of Barking up the Wrong Tree, told Fox Business. “Academic grades correlate only loosely with intelligence,” he said. Instead, they reflect “self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules.”

“Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries … they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up,” Boston College Professor Karen Arnold was quoted as saying in Money magazine.

Arnold followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians. Nearly all earned a college degree and 60 percent a graduate degree, she found. Ninety percent worked in professional careers and 40 percent were in the highest-tier jobs.

While Arnold found valedictorians averaged a 3.6 college GPA, another study estimated millionaires’ average college GPA was 2.9, writes Barker.

So, academic mediocrity leads to millions? Self-discipline pays off in school, but not in the workplace?

The argument is bogus, writes Dan Willingham. Very few people become millionaires, which is Barker’s definition of a disruptor. What percentage of non-valedictorians become millionaires?

Even if it’s true that valedictorians are less likely to become millionaire disruptors, there’s no evidence that conformity is the causal factor, adds Willingham.

. . . We can have equal fun proposing other causal relationships; disruptors are bad at assessing risks but valedictorians are good at assessing risks; gaining status as a valedictorian makes people buy into societal norms; disruptors don’t do very well in school because they aren’t very smart—that’s why they take big risks.

I’m dubious about equating millionaire status with being a disruptor, visionary, innovator or leader. There are lots of dull ways to make money — and innovative careers that don’t bring in the big bucks. (My husband, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and holder of 30+ patents, believes salesmanship is the key to financial success.)

Why not celebrate our most successful students? The fact that they tend to be self-disciplined and conscientiousness is nothing to sneer at.

America has “turned against smart kids,” argues Pratik Chougule in The American Conservative. “An educational establishment seduced by egalitarian zeal, and an anti-intellectual American culture more generally, has turned the very idea of investing in our most intelligent kids into a sort of heresy.”

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