Food For Thought

Graduation: How Many Is Too Many?

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

June is the month of graduation. It’s a time when families celebrate the educational accomplishments of children, grandkids, brothers, spouses, friends and others.

Graduation ceremonies are held to recognize the significant learning accomplishment of the degree recipient. It’s a time when we recognize that a new phase in a person’s life has begun. Some graduates will continue on with their education and have additional opportunities to graduate. Others will enter the world of work or military. Some students are very fortunate and will take time to travel and enjoy life. It’s a time of rebirth.

I have participated in four graduation ceremonies. My first graduation was in 1956, from Bentleyville High School, a small high school in western Pennsylvania. I can’t remember much about the graduation ceremony. The diploma I received was to signify my high-school academic accomplishments. I didn’t excel in academics during my first 12 years in the education environment. I believe my class rank was 52nd out of a total of 72. Maybe that’s why I have a poor memory. I received the activities award, given to the person most active in things other than going to class. I was also voted most comical and best dancer — neither award contributed to my quality-point average. My major interests were athletics, fishing, hunting, girls and just goofing around. In other words, I cut a lot of classes. None of these activities were considered a part of the academic process. They were just something that happened and not measurable by any standard academic examination. I did accomplish enough to earn the diploma for which I stayed in school 12 years.

My future graduations indicated that I also had some academic ability. I made the dean’s list most of the time during my undergraduate years. I can’t remember my college rank, but I’m sure it was significantly higher than the rank I had during my high-school years. My graduate-study years were also academically productive, receiving special attention during the 1976 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s graduation ceremonies. The special attention I received was not for my academic accomplishments, but rather for my name. All doctoral recipients were given the privilege of receiving their degree on stage. Dean Bull, the graduate-school dean, came to a sudden stop when he began to read my name. He never did get the words out of his mouth. I had too many vowels in my name. Since that day I’ve been known as “John What.”

Feel-Good Society

Graduations should mean something, but in today’s feel-good environment we have a graduation or award ceremony for everything. This article is a result of a conversation that took place at the local Cystic Fibrosis Foundation supper. My daughter-in-law turned to me and said, “I know how you feel about this, but Brooke (my granddaughter) is graduating on June 6th and we’d like you and grandma to come.” I laughed — Brooke is four and she’s graduating from nursery school. All of Brooke’s grandparents seldom miss any of her activities and we’ll be there for this graduation. But somehow I just don’t feel she’s accomplished anything worthy of the term graduation. Whatever happened to the end-of-the-year party? Seems like a picnic or a trip to the zoo is more appropriate for this level of accomplishment. There are so many graduations and award activities before our children reach high-school graduation that they become immune to the process. High-school graduation is just another day of getting patted on the back.

We over-reward our children. My kids and grandkids got a trophy for everything. If you played the game you were awarded a trophy. Accomplishing something was secondary. I’ve seen kids get larger trophies than the Super Bowl trophy just for participating in T-ball. (The team also came in last place.) I know winning shouldn’t be the only game in town, but getting an award should mean a child did more than just show up. Do kids really need all these rewards? Maybe they’re more for mom and dad than the recipient.

Recently I was doing one of my “honey-do list” items and came across a boxes of trophies. I asked my children what they wanted me to do with them. Most of them ended up in the trash except for a few that signified exceptional accomplishments. I too had a box of plaques and certificates that meant nothing. A few now hang on the office wall, but most went into the trash can. I’ve gotten a certificate of accomplishment for almost every workshop I’ve attended without demonstrating I knew anything about the subject.

The university environment is notorious for showing and telling everyone of every little accomplishment. I had colleagues who actually displayed their conference-attendance badges on their office bulletin boards. Their promotion or evaluation portfolios were full of insignificant items that we expected professors to do as part of the job. They certainly weren’t meritorious. I only mention this to show how widespread award inflation is in today’s society.

I do remember getting some money as a high-school graduation gift. I might note from my academic accomplishments the financial rewards were undeserved. I know I never got paid for the grades I received in elementary or secondary school. Dad just thought school was my family responsibility, just as working in the coal mine to feed us was his responsibility. We didn’t need special awards for doing what was expected. A Father’s Day hug is all that most dads need, and maybe that’s what we should give kids instead of all the plastic awards.

This year’s high-school graduates should ask themselves, “To what degree does this diploma represent my best effort?” I guess I met the minimum standards for receiving mine years ago, but I am not proud of my lack of academic accomplishment in high school. As years go by, awards obtained for little or no effort will end up in the trash can. A reward that represents your maximum effort deserves a place on the wall. I can’t find my high-school diploma, but my doctorate does occupy a place for others to see.


What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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