Each year, in recognition of superior scholarship, the Commencement Program sets aside certain names of those who have earned degrees with special honor. A degree 'cum laude" may be won by general excellence judged on the basis of grades; the higher honors, "magna cum laude" and "summa cum laude" are awarded only to those who have shown unusual ability in their special field, as indicated by a good scholastic record, a thesis, and usually an oral examination. A personal test of this sort, before a few members of the department, and supplemented with a thesis and course records, is surely the thesis and course records, is surely the most reliable gauge of a student's knowledge.
In the English Department, however, it is still possible to receive a degree "magna cum" or "summa cum" without this oral examination. That department still distinguishes between a degree "with distinction" and a degree "with Honors". This latter, which requires a severe oral quiz and a long thesis in addition to a high course record and certain specified studies, entitles the successful candidate to "Honors" or "Highest Honors". But the "magna cum" or "summa cum" is awarded without any oral examination, and with more lenient requirements in other respects: Anglo-Saxon, for example, is not necessary; and the thesis represents less exacting work. Consequently the degree "with Honors" in English corresponds to the degree "with Distinction" in most other departments; while the degree "with Distinction" in English means considerably less. Yet it is represented by the same words on the diploma, and to the uninitiated it is literally a distinction without a difference. There is nothing to compensate for this disproportion.
It is true enough that scholarship is its own reward; yet these honor degrees are an incentive to better work, and not only a deserved satisfaction to those who win them but sometimes a practical advantage as well. It is probably futile to suggest that the British system of "Pass Schools" and "Honor Schools" will some day be adopted here; it is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Meanwhile the asking of honor degrees should be encouraged in every way possible. One way is to simplify the requirements and make them familiar and intelligible to all--for at present even the heads of departments have admitted confusion; another is to make them represent more nearly the same degree of effort and intelligence in the different fields. In English, this can be accomplished by abolishing the degree "with Honors", and transferring its present requirements to the degree "with Distinction". The English Department, being the largest, has been used as a convenient example; others, such as the Classics, show similar discrepancies, and a general house-cleaning will not be amiss.