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In less than a month, the latest crop of soon-to-be Harvard Law School graduates will join their fellow graduates from across the University in receiving their hard-earned diplomas. But unlike some of their peers, graduating students of Harvard Law School may be in for a shocking surprise: Their diplomas are unreadable, because they are in Latin.
Despite having learned a smattering of Latin phrases such as inter alia, sui generis, and res ipsa loquitur during their time at Harvard—a complementary bonus that comes with an education in the conservative field of law—few Harvard Law School students know enough Latin to actually read their diplomas. And for those in the general population who might have occasion to rest their gaze on one of these treasured trophies of achievement, the chances of comprehension are lower still.
The Harvard diploma is the symbolic embodiment of success and accomplishment achieved through years of effort at one of the world’s foremost institutions of higher learning. As such, most graduates will presumably wish to display theirs prominently for perusal by themselves, family, friends, clients, and others. What else, after all, is a diploma for?
Nevertheless, the Law School’s Latin diplomas continue to come up short on comprehensibility, to the point of even robbing graduates of the august, world-renowned Harvard brand name used in association with the University in virtually every other context. The name “Harvard” is printed in newspapers, magazines, and journals; it is mentioned in films, speeches, and casual conversation; it appears on official university clothing, vehicles, and memorabilia. It can be found prominently placed on admissions letters, transcripts, billing statements, and the University’s own web page. The name “Harvard” is even found on sample Harvard diplomas in the brochure for Harvard diploma frames found at the Harvard Coop located in—of all places—Harvard Square. Yet Harvard Law School does not offer its graduates diplomas that likewise utilize this legendary brand name that has been centuries in the making. Instead, the Law School completely eschews the working language of the institution and its host society in favor of the more traditional Latin, so much so that its diplomas do not even contain the phrases “Harvard University” or “Harvard Law School”—or even the word “Harvard”—anywhere on them.
History and tradition might well be called upon to justify such an obfuscation of meaning. Harvard is, after all, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, founded at a time when Latin was decidedly in vogue for scholarly pursuits. Indeed, Latin was still an important pillar of a Harvard education nearly 100 years later, when, in 1734, entry to the all-male school was dependent upon a candidate having been able “extempore to read, construe, and parse Tully, Virgil, or such like common classical Latin authors, and to write true Latin in prose, and to be skilled in making Latin verse, or at least in the rules of Prosodia . . . .”
Some 275 years later, however, the social context has changed enormously. Latin no longer enjoys a strong association with contemporary educated individuals, nor is it even readable by the majority of them (to say nothing of the general population). Perhaps in recognition of this, many schools—including some other schools at Harvard and even some otherwise highly conservative Jesuit universities—choose to offer their diplomas in English, while the Law School diploma, seemingly oblivious to the dramatic societal changes surrounding it, remains stubbornly stuck in the past.
Harvard need not give up its rich Latin tradition in order to improve the communicative impact of its diplomas. Diplomas could, for example, be issued primarily in Latin but with the name of the University and the name of the degree written in English. Or graduates might be given a choice between English and Latin, since all diplomas must be customized anyway with the graduate’s name.
As crowds disperse and the lingering echoes of the commencement ceremony fade, Harvard graduates will be on their way to new lives and new challenges. Wherever alums choose to go, however, diplomas will accompany them throughout their lives. Given the diploma’s enduring value and significance as a vessel of meaning, we members of the Harvard community might do well to reconsider the form of this venerable token of erudition.
Stephen M. Darrow ’09 is a Harvard Law School graduate. Jonathan J. Darrow is an S.J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School.
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