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All Harvard diplomas are not created equal.
Every year, a select portion of the graduating class receives a few additional lines of print on their diplomas designating Latin honors: summa cum laude, magna cum laude, or cum laude. The English, or departmental, honors, however, represented through the respective distinctions of highest honors, high honors, or honors, connotes a slightly different type of achievement. Departmental distinctions go to students who are “especially distinguished” in their concentration and are noted in transcripts only—not on diplomas. By contrast, the Latin honors go to students who have been recommended for departmental honors and also attain a minimum cumulative GPA; a subcommittee of the Faculty Council determines the cutoff each year.
Interestingly enough, during a recent Faculty meeting, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris presented a motion to revise the current system of Latin honors. Dean Harris ’s proposal would mandate that five percent of undergraduates receive summa cum laude degrees, as opposed to the current system that selects between four and five percent of undergraduates at the discretion of the Faculty Council subcommittee. A policy that requires summa cum laude honorees to receive As in two classes in the humanities, in the social sciences, and in the natural sciences would also be reconsidered.
These, of course, are good steps, but the honors system should be reconsidered more broadly.
By rewarding students who achieve a minimum GPA across classes, the Latin honors system does more to discourage academic achievement than to encourage it. It encourages students to view classes outside of their concentration as a means to an end, the end being the highest possible grade, rather than an opportunity for intellectual exploration. High-achieving classics concentrators looking to take a course in, say, physics might be discouraged from taking Physics 15a not because of a lack of interest but because they believe they will not get equivalently high grades as they do in their own concentration. Such students fail to push their own boundaries and to discover hidden talents and passions. This works against the purpose of a liberal arts education, which is to expose students to a broad range of different fields and to discover a variety of interests.
In determining Latin honors, the College considers a single number in judging whether or not a student is worthy of a distinction that carries connotations of academic prowess. As a result, students who take notoriously easy classes are rewarded, in part, for the low standards they set.
In contrast, the English, or departmental, honors system is less harmful to the academic spirit of the College. It accomplishes the purpose of an honors system—to reward exceptional academic achievement—while allowing students room to take risks and find their feet in disciplines where they feel less at home.
Because English honors reward high achievement without dissuading academic exploration, they should be kept and promoted as the University’s main honor system, and Latin honors should be abolished. To be sure, this move is certainly not the ultimate answer to the age-old problem of students taking classes merely to increase their GPAs for reasons outside of academic honors, such as jobs or fellowships. Culture shifts, however, are hard to achieve over night, and we feel certain that banishing Latin honors from Harvard would at least be one concrete step the College could take to encourage and defend the spirit of intellectual pursuit that should characterize any liberal arts education.
Ideally, of course, honors should remain an afterthought in the course of one’s college experience. But we nevertheless believe that eliminating Latin honors is a necessary step in correcting the troubling trend of students motivating themselves for the honors themselves instead of the accomplishments they are meant to connote.
High achievement deserves to be honored, but only when it is present alongside sincere motivation and considerable ambition. Just as not all diplomas are created equal—neither are all GPAs.
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