With Highest Honor
I have occasionally thought that pursuing an advanced degree is a bit like playing a game… a massive, cumbersome, complex game. Maybe that’s a sign I think about games too much Recently, I had a rude awakening regarding the structure of this game I’m playing: they changed the rules on me. Rather, the rules did not change, I discovered an assumption I had made about the rules was false, and it changed the nature of my participation significantly. I stopped wanting to play.
American accredited universities have the custom of awarding Latin honors to new graduates: cum laude (meaning “with honor”), magna cum laude (“with great honor”) and summa cum laude (“with highest honor”). Usually these are determined by one’s cumulative GPA upon the date of graduation. For example, when I received my BA from Trinity, I had a 3.77 overall GPA and thus was awarded magna cum laude. I remember it clearly because it was the last semester’s good grades that pushed my GPA over the mark: 3.75 was the designator for magna cum laude, as opposed to cum laude (3.5). At the time I was somewhat preoccupied with this, and I received rebuke and criticism from many of my friends and colleagues for being so “obsessed with grades.” I was offended and hurt by their condemnation. I thought, “I have and achieved a great thing: excellent grades for four years of work, spanning many diverse departments and disciplines, is no easy task. What I have accomplished is noteworthy; it represents hard work, talent, determination, perseverance, and commitment above and beyond what is necessary simply to graduate. By merit of this effort I have earned a place of distinction among my peers. Why should I be blasé about this honor?”
I as mystified why my peers should be so scornful. What is the value of recognizing greatness and distinction among contemporaries? How should we do so? Hierarchical awards are nothing new. Most American universities give honorary degrees to persons of great vision, leadership, talent, or diligence. American high schools have valedictorians and salutatorians for the top achievers in the class. Kindergarten teachers give gold stars to students with exemplary behavior or who produce exemplary work. While it can be rightly said that no person should undertake great work simply for the attention that comes with a prestigious award, it is nevertheless important that such awards exist. Likewise, we do not award such honor in order to make the unrecognized feel less than, but to inspire them by example. When we bestow honor on our best and brightest, we are saying two things: to the honoree, we say, “You have accomplished a great thing. Your work stands as an example of the heights of possibility for human achievement, and you have bettered us all by your effort. For this contribution to the community, we honor you.” And to those in attendance we say, “Give due to this person and note their accomplishment. They have achieved a great thing, and have bettered us all by their effort. They stand as inspiration to all, and an example of the opportunities for and rewards of great endeavor.”
When we take away our honors, we take away the dignity and pride that is the due of any who undertake and achieve great work. Without this pride, the motivation to achieve is significantly undermined. Consider why a person would pursue such a challenging and trying course when simply “getting by” is so much easier and more comfortable. Arguably, it is to better themselves — to go as high and as far as they can. But as people strive for and accomplish this, they also bring the benefits of their effort to the community. Service to one’s self translates to service to their fellow men. Many, many cultural myths and customs reinforce this idea of sacrifice and exertion for the betterment of the village — it is critical to the evolution of human society. But what if a person succeeds at this daunting task only to find their fellows have no more respect or gratitude for their achievement than they have for the person who merely passed, who did the bare minimum? What would you expect the great achiever to feel in that situation, faced by peers who yawn and snicker at their work? Would you expect them to want to undertake a difficult task again? The rare few will continue to strive in the face of all adversity, but many will quickly come to believe that their work has no value, and they will abandon it. If people fail to recognize the value of achievement and undermine the will of people to seek it, where does that leave the community?
I recently attended my brother’s undergraduate graduation in Tacoma and witnessed the graduate students sitting at the front in their striped robes with the colored hoods, distinct from the undergrads in their plain black gowns. All graduating were worthy of high honor, but by giving the graduate students a further place of honor and attire distinguished from their younger peers, the college was saying “We recognize your degree as representative of six years of great work, not four, and two of those in the notably more challenging graduate program. You are worthy of a Master’s degree, a higher honor and greater achievement than a Bachelor’s.” Imagine if you were sitting among the rows of undergrads, observing the grads as the college recognized them. Would you not be proud of them for the work they had done? Would you not be inspired by their example?
Now imagine if they sat among their undergraduate classmates, in identical gowns, indistinguishable from the Bachelor’s candidates. Would you still be so easily inspired by their example? Sitting there among undergrads, designated by their attire and placement as being of equal merit despite the two years of advanced study, would you expect them to feel particularly proud? Would you expect onlookers to be as proud of them?
At SCAD, I have a 4.0 after two years. The other day I called up the Office of Graduate Studies to ask if they give Latin honors to grads. They said they didn’t. I asked if the graduates wore hooded robes with the school colors. They said no, grads wear plain black just like undergrads. After I got over my astonishment, I discovered I had lost interest in maintaining that 4.0. No employer was ever going to care about my grades, but I expected the university to do so. I made an assumption about the “rules of play” for graduate study: that getting good grades was worth something. Now, SCAD is saying, “If you get a 4.0 or a 3.0, we don’t care. If you get a BFA or a MFA, we don’t care. Your work will be held equal to someone who skipped class and slacked off for two years.” Imagine my disenfranchisement.
For all I may sound petulant in this editorial, I apologize. It may be easy for you to say that honors don’t matter, that gowns and Latin inscriptions on a diploma are superficial and unimportant, and I may be botching the job of persuading you otherwise. But I sincerely believe that when we distinguish ourselves we deserve to be recognized. Distinction should not, must not be ignored. When we stop outwardly valuing achievement, we pave the road to stop valuing it internally. And when that happens, all future achievement is sabotaged and the community will inevitably decline. But when we create the hierarchy, include the distinction, bestow the honor… we pave the road for a future filled with greatness. Setting our best and brightest apart and taking a moment to give them honor is not trivial. It is the source of all our pride and inspiration to follow in their footsteps.