"They obey rules, work hard and like learning, but they're not the mold breakers," said Arnold of the 81 Illinois high school valedictorians - 46 women and 35 men - she has tracked since their graduation in 1981. "They work best within the system and aren't likely to change it."
Arnold's latest book, Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians , profiles 15 of the valedictorians, utilizing over 11,000 pages of interview transcripts she has accumulated during the 14-year project. She has followed the progress of these top high school achievers to study the nature of academic success, its costs and rewards, and its effects on career and personal life. Valedictorians, Arnold says, often find their callings in ways which differ from expectations others have of them, including their college professors.
"They're extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally," she said, "but they've never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence. The opportunities to become famous or change the world as an accountant, for example, are few and far between.
"But while valedictorians may not change the world, they run it and run it well, since they are the best of the mainstream."
Her subjects are now 32 years old and most work in conventional careers as accountants, physicians, lawyers, engineers, physical therapists, nurses and teachers. Others chose different paths - one became a poet, another a social justice activist. Four never finished college and five of the women, two with master's degrees and two with doctorates, are out of the labor force rearing children.
Arnold was surprised by the extraordinary gender differences that surfaced in the study. By their sophomore year in college, the female valedictorians had lowered their intellectual estimation of themselves as well as their career aspirations because they were concerned about combining motherhood and a demanding career, even though most didn't even have a boyfriend at the time, she said.
While the family and career conflict was critical for women, Arnold said their lower expectations were not necessarily bad. "I think it's part of the maturing process. They decided that there are lots of ways to be intelligent, not just through occupational success."
"They asked themselves, 'What kind of career do I want and how will it fit into my life?,' while the men skipped that stage and just aimed for the highest level they could," she said. Arnold adds, however, that both genders in the group value balance in their lives and none is obsessed about work.
The valedictorians appear very well-adjusted in their personal lives, said Arnold. Two-thirds are married and only three, all of whom married before the age of 21, have divorced. Most of the valedictorians came from what Arnold described as "very healthy, functional, two-parent families."
Arnold was disturbed, however, to see that valedictorians on the whole lacked knowledge of how to develop and manage a career. While they excelled in college, earning an overall 3.6 grade point average, Arnold said they received insufficient mentoring from faculty on choosing a career properly. The increasing demands of research and other tasks on faculty, she said, is a cause for concern if it leaves them less time to provide guidance for students of all abilities outside of the classroom.
"People feel like valedictorians can take care of themselves," Arnold said, "but just because they could get 'A's doesn't mean they can translate academic achievement into career achievement."
Arnold said this lack of mentoring adds up to more than a series of individual tragedies, since the valedictorians are potential leaders. Higher education should focus more on the overall needs of students, valedictorians or not, "to ensure they consider all the roads they can travel and find the pathways of achievement open to all."
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