A Degree in English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri May 15 12:59:54 UTC 2009

A Degree in English  Paula Scher and Lisa Kitschenberg

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Published: May 14, 2009

Carlisle, Pa.

CONGRATULATIONS. You are graduating this month with a Baccalaureatus
Scientiae in Compertis ad Salutem Pertinentibus Administrandis. It sounds
impressive, but what does it have to do with your degree in health
information management? Almost no one knows, and that’s why the Latin
diploma needs to go.

Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and
informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is
to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight. The goal
of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge — not the
creation and transmission of prestige. Why, then, celebrate that education
with a document that prizes grandiosity over communication?

A disclosure: Diploma Latin has caused me some personal pain and
humiliation. I am in charge of adjusting the complicated Latin dates on the
diplomas at the college where I teach, a project I’ve always taken pride in.

Last year, I was asked to update the text, and I made a mistake; the details
are almost too painful to recall. An extra keystroke of mine changed “anno”
into “annno.” This went unnoticed — because most people couldn’t read the
Latin anyway — until the diplomas had been printed and distributed. Later,
some people did catch the mistake, including one of my best students, who
assumed that a king’s ransom in tuition guaranteed her a proofread diploma.
The college had to spend $4,000 to print new diplomas.

So, yes, I am scarred. But even before the recent unpleasantness, I had my
doubts about the wisdom of using the language of Livy for this particular

I know that getting rid of the Latin diploma will not be easy. While most
colleges and universities now issue English diplomas, some prominent
holdouts — including Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania —
still use Latin. Many students and alumni cherish the tradition. In 1961,
when Harvard switched to English diplomas, about 4,000 students protested in
the “diploma riots,” and criticized the new documents as “Y.M.C.A.

We Latinists have also been resistant to change. Like most keepers of arcane
knowledge, we savor our rare moments of prominence.

I say this from personal experience: Once, the hardened leader of the local
SWAT team asked me for a Latin version of his team’s credo, “The strength of
the wolf is in the pack, the strength of the pack is in the wolf.” I told
him: “Robur gregi in lupo, robur lupo in grege.” He thanked me and then said
the nine most comforting words a SWAT team leader could say to anyone: “Let
me know if you ever need a favor.”

Admittedly, this pales in comparison to the fame gained by the Columbia
University Latin scholar who had the high honor of translating for the press
the tattoo of the woman at the center of the Eliot Spitzer scandal from
“Tutela valui” to “I use protection.”

This all sounds very exciting, but these stories of linguistic derring-do
obscure the fact that Latin diplomas have outlived their usefulness.

Originally, diplomas were letters of introduction given to travelers by the
Roman government. For centuries, Latin served as a convenient common
language among educated people around the world. This is no longer the case.
Graduates don’t pull diplomas out of their glove boxes, and fraud is
resolved by checking college records. But diplomas are still supposed to
convey information, and Latin diplomas fail to fulfill that function. When
one Dickinson College alumna recently applied to work at a public school,
she had a photocopied version of her Latin diploma returned as foreign and

I’ve heard some argue that Latin is on diplomas because it’s beautiful and
the language of Virgil and Cicero. The sad fact, though, is that diploma
Latin is a far cry from Cicero’s Latin.

Roman writers composed some of the world’s most thrilling verse and were
masters of historiography, oratory and philosophy. But diploma Latin is some
of the most depressing and long-winded legalese you can find. Hiding behind
the lovely calligraphy are maddening syntax and appalling neologisms. How do
you say the name of every college town in Latin? You shouldn’t have to.

(Nor should you have to struggle to read the text in the illustration that
accompanies this piece, so let me help you out. It says: “I can’t understand
this either.”)

As a college professor, I try to tell my students that education is more
than a status symbol. Its purpose is the development of the mind and social
usefulness through the clear communication of information and ideas. Why
contradict that with the very piece of paper that is meant to represent the
work they’ve done? A college education is something to be proud of, but its
prestige should lie in its content, not its form.

I love Latin, but when the last American diploma is finally converted to
English I will say, “Ita vero.” Right on.

Christopher Francese, an associate professor of classical studies at
Dickinson College, is the author of “Ancient Rome in So Many Words.”


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