Opinion: Friends Select Should Discontinue Its Awards Ceremony


On Wednesday night, Friends Select will hold its annual Upper School Awards Ceremony via Zoom. Such academic awards ceremonies are frequent subjects of criticism and consideration at high schools across the country. According to some, they incentivize and reward hard work and active learning; to others, they shame struggling students and promote the wrong values. Friends Select would be wise to scrap its awards program, which contributes little and may take away much. High-achieving students don’t need awards to know that they are good students, and other students don’t need to sit empty-handed while their classmates receive acclaim and recognition. The students who win academic awards at Friends Select would work equally diligently if such awards did not exist. If these awards aren’t motivating and have the potential to generate ill feelings in the community, there is no need to keep them.

Especially at Friends Select, where dozens of awards are bestowed upon juniors and seniors, awards ceremonies have an isolating effect. Non-winners surely can’t feel great after receiving nothing when half of their classmates are given awards. Over time, the school has added more and more awards for proficiency and dedication in various academic areas. This is a positive development — it demonstrates that excellence takes infinite forms, all of which deserve recognition. However, it still misses the mark: once we acknowledge some students’ quality, we should acknowledge the best work that all students put forth.

Having won an award last year, I can say that receiving such recognition did not improve my self-esteem, change my perspective on my academic performance, or motivate me to do the same work this year. At best, it was an affirmation of my work. Although I do not know who decided that this specific award should go to me, I question whether or not they could be absolutely certain that I deserved it. They had no way of knowing if I had truly worked as hard as other classmates or if I loved the work as much as others. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure what the award was supposed to signify — every student contributes to the school, and my contributions are certainly not more valuable than others. Why, then, do we lift some and not others?

If Friends Select believes that its students work hard in hopes of recognition in front of their peers, it should seriously reevaluate the values it seeks to instill through its curriculum. Love of learning and positive impact on classmates, the most important and valuable qualities a student can have, are not quantifiable and are not necessarily reflected in awards decisions. Likewise, traditional academic pursuits are well represented by Friends Select’s slate of awards, while more individualized but equally worthy academic passions, such as computer programming or other independent interests, are not. 

This is not to say that Friends Select cannot publicly celebrate its students. Rather, they should change their approach: in accordance with Quaker values, they should celebrate all or celebrate none. There is plenty to praise about each student in each class. The school’s current awards process lifts few up and puts several down; students, teachers, and administrators alike should reconsider whether or not we need such a ceremony.

The school has several reasons it might like to continue its awards ceremony. Many awards honor alumni, some of whom died at an early age. To their families, these awards may hold emotional value; eliminating such awards could be unfair, especially to those who bestowed the award through a donation. However, there are other equally respectful and valuable ways to honor these alumni. Dedicating spaces or endowing academic programs at the school could honor alumni contributions in a similar manner to awards. Additionally, academic awards are listed on the Common Application and may factor significantly into college admissions decisions. If the school decides that the application-related benefits of academic awards are really that valuable, they can always just grant such awards behind closed doors. Finally, some awards at Friends Select grant scholarships to exemplary students. Obviously, the school should not do away with such rewards: scholarships, especially for students who need them, are an important part of the school’s mission for equity and inclusion. However, such scholarships should not be granted in front of the entire school community — their financial value is not diminished by a private award.

Of course, awards ceremonies are not just a celebration of students. Friends Select teachers, who often work and grow with students over the entirety of their high school careers, may value the opportunity to prepare remarks to commemorate their students’ works. However, these messages of gratitude can, and already are, expressed in private: every year, as seniors approach the end of classes, they share handwritten notes of appreciation with their teachers. Additionally, there is no shortage of teacher-to-student praise throughout the school year. Friends Select is unique in its culture of mutual respect between teachers and students: parading this culture in a contrived manner in front of the entire community lessens its value.