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Making Diplomas Modern

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By Nikki Usher, NIKKI B. USHER

I’m more than happy to type Harvard under the education section of my resume. But when it comes to specifying my degree, I’ve started making a little white lie—switching the official abbreviation, A.B. to B.A.

Many of us are in job-hunting season right now, and mid-year graduates are about to get their diplomas. This strange Harvardian quirk, the A.B., for artis baccaluareus, according to the Registrar, does not go unnoticed. Applying for journalism jobs, I’ve always been hesitant to write A.B. lest some employer think that I’ve made some careless typo.

And as I consider purchasing a $500 class ring, I find the A.B. on the side to be a little disconcerting. Since my parents are footing the bill for this graduation present, they get to have a little say in choosing the design. “Why are you getting an A.B.? It’s not like Harvard is granting you stomach muscles,” commented my Dad, illustrating typical father humor.

The A.B., aside from the Latin honors, such as “cum laude,” is the only bit of Latin that remains on a Harvard diploma. Hundreds of colleges award Latin honors, so I don’t protest having a little flourish added to my degree, especially because most people know what the phrases mean. Harvard’s diplomas have a silly inconsistency. Undergraduate diplomas haven’t been in Latin since 1961, yet the abbreviation is still A.B.

J.F. Coakley, an author of a book on Harvard diplomas and a senior lecturer in Syriac, pointed out the inconsistency, “Even in Latin the diploma always said ‘Baccalaureus in Artibus’ with B before A; so why the abbreviation was AB—and still more, why it should still be so now that the diploma is in English —I don’t know.”

Yale’s diplomas are written entirely in Latin (leaving Women and Gender Studies majors with “sexualis” printed in large print on their degrees). However, their degrees are still abbreviated BA.

Granted, this small abbreviation is not the college’s largest concern. But it does make me yearn for a diploma that reflects all of Harvard’s pomp and circumstance—a degree presented entirely in Latin. Harvard bigwigs still view Latin as relevant enough to have a Latin oration during Commencement, (although those graduating are given a translation in their programs). The ancient language still conjures a sense of antiquity and grandeur, whether or not we know what it means.

On April 28, 1961, about 4,000 Harvard students participated in the “Diploma Riots,” protesting in the streets of Cambridge because President Nathan M. Pusey made English the official language on Harvard diplomas. Students were furious that they would be getting a “YMCA Certificate,” according to The Crimson. Pusey could not be persuaded, so the diplomas remained in English.

The archaic A.B. is a reminder that Harvard always tries to be a little bit different and distinguish itself from all of the other institutions in America by emphasizing its tradition. If Harvard unabashedly embraces this sense of its own history, then it should be reflected on one of the most important products of a Harvard education: a diploma. But if the University wishes to make the documents more “modern” by printing diplomas in English, it might as well update the abbreviation.

Nkki B. Usher was a senior editor in 2002.

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