A Degree in English

By request, a reprise of my 2009 Op-ed on Latin college diplomas.

Published: May 14, 2009
Carlisle, Pa.

NYT op-ed art

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 purpose.

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. certificates.”

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 illegible.

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.

[A version of this article appeared in print on May 15, 2009, on page A39 of the New York edition of the New York Times, and on the Times’ web site.]

3 thoughts on “A Degree in English

  1. Dear Professor Francese et Latin Scholars at Dickinson College. I was sitting in my office and glanced at my diploma from DC and noticed something I perhaps overlooked before: the last line reads “XIII Kal. Jun., Anno Domini bis millesimo primo.” As it seemed odd to me, I plugged it into translate.google, and got a confusing date: 13 April June… Considering graduation was on May 20th, I figured I would ask if this is an accurate translation or mistake.
    Besides for this, I am very happy the diploma is in Latin. I think all schools founded/chartered before 1800 should retain this mark of distinction, plus with my MA in Italian, it’s nice to have various language diplomas on display.

  2. Thanks for this comment, Seneca. XIII Kal. Iun. means “the thirteenth day before the Kalends (First) of June, or May 20, if you count inclusively as the Romans did. In a way your question supports my point, that someone such as yourself, a supporter of Latin with a screen name recalling two of the greatest Latin authors, is confused by the (truly very confusing) Roman dating formulas used in Latin diplomas. But I do feel a certain sense of loss, I admit.

  3. Professor Francese, thank you for the translation. I appreciate the work that went into the translations and love the diploma more now that that has been cleared up. Thirteen days before the Kalends of June, to mean 20 May, is great! While I speak proficiently five languages, Latin is not one of them; however, I respect and appreciate languages and alphabets. My fascination with languages and alphabets has let me to learn (in addition to those that I speak – at least the letters) in Armenian, Greek, Cyrillic, and Thai, next I may move onto Arabic and perhaps others. Thank you again for providing the translation, I still strongly support the idea that my alma mater uses a Latin diploma. On a side note, my Master’s diploma (which is in Italian from the Uni of Florence) has replaced every “u” with a “v”. Thus, my degree in European Studies (Studi Europei in Italian) reads “STVDI EVROPEI.” : )

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