Friday, May 15, 2009

Should We Keep Latin Diplomas?

I personally do not have a Latin diploma. IWU and my current Columbia use English (yes, even Columbia).

Dickinson College's Latin professor, Christopher Francese, says, indeed, Latin diplomas must 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?


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.”


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.


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

I see that Professor Francese has not been initiated into "you know what," so he does not know the secret knowledge and wisdom the university passes down obscurely; thus, the rather minor obfuscation on the diploma. ;)

At Columbia, there is a little game of whether or not you can find the owl in the alma mater statue. The owl is slightly hidden, representing hidden wisdom. Yet we have English diplomas.


Unknown said...

The first thing I did when I got my MA in the mail was open it up to see if it was in Latin. When I found out it wasn't, I closed it up again and haven't looked at it since...

Anonymous said...

But my daughter's Columbia College (of Columbia University) diploma is in Latin. That's what caused me to look on the web for the history of diploma wording. I found in the process that some of Columbia's schools have Latin ones and some English ones.

Anonymous said...

My diploma is entirely in Latin—save for my name, which is misspelled in English. Perhaps they would have been better off putting that in Latin, too.

Jared Calaway said...

For the anonymous ones,

which schools at Columbia still use Latin diplomas?