21 March 2012

With Honors

What does it mean to graduate cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude?
Literally, the Latin phrase cum laude means “with honor” or “with praise,” the latter being a more direct translation of the word laude. Similarly, magna cum laude means “with great praise”, and summa cum laude means “with the highest praise.”
So whenever we say, in a tone fraught with respect for the depth of meaning and gravitas that the original Latin term offers, that a student is graduating cum laude, magna cum laude,or summa cum laude, what we are saying is that the student is graduating with praise, great praise, or the highest praise.

The meaning of the term really says very little, so that perhaps it is a little disappointing to work so hard for four to five years to attain those famed Latin distinctions, only to find that they add very little, if at all, to the obvious.
 But perhaps that is the beauty of it: that it says so little about who you are to the world that there is so much room for you to determine what it really means for yourself.
To the outside world, graduating with honors is the mark of an exceptional graduate: gifted, hardworking, intelligent, with all the tools to succeed in life and career. Yet all that graduating with honors really means is that one has performed well in the classroom: that one scores well on tests, participates in class, and makes good presentations. If one goes to school to study, then graduating with honors proves that one has been a good student.
On the one hand, there is good reason to believe that students who graduate with honors are likely to become successful.
On the other hand, if it is true that the classroom is an entirely different setting from the workplace, the community, and even the home, then graduating with honors might mean very little. In that case, to go from exceptional student to exceptional individual is a huge logical leap, and it cannot predict whether one will find success or meaning in his or her life.
In the so-called “real world”, we find that this is the case. While there are many honor graduates who end up becoming rich or famous or otherwise successful, there are just as many graduates who may not have earned special academic distinctions at school, but have become just as successful as their honorable peers, if not more so. This suggests that in the bigger picture, there are multiple other factorsthat affect a graduating student’s chances of success apart from academic honors.
To have academic honors is to have a certain incentive or added pressure: one must succeed if he or she is to be worthy of the distinction. For some it might be nice to have, but it is a pressure or incentive that one can do without.
Graduating with honors means that one has a mind well-versed in logical thinking and critical analysis, tools that enable one to get ahead. But it does not measure whether one can engage in creative or divergent thinking, communicate well, or lead and inspire others, tools that enable one to get to the top. These are skills that are developed in a bigger way outside of the classroom: through extra-curricular activities, leadership positions, competitions athletic and otherwise, and engagement with peers and outside communities.
Graduating with honors in no way insures one’s moral character or scruples. Many honorable graduates have shaped and shifted industries and communities, for better or for worse. Many a valedictorian has impacted the history of this nation, for better and for worse.
 Those of us who are graduating with honors cannot assure, by the mere fact of our graduating with some sort of a laude, that we will turn out to be honorable people.
But what cannot be doubted is that graduating with honors is a tribute to all those who have helped or contributed to get one to his or her standing. From experience, consistently getting high grades—the only prerequisite to graduating with honors—is a tricky business, one that is just as much science as it is art. Individual merit and motivation is one part of the equation; the other parts are the nature of the course, the teacher’s skill, perceptions and expectations, conditions within the project group, the barkada, or the family, and even political and economic conditions at large.
So that when one goes up the stage to receive his or her diploma, medal and five seconds of applause, one represents, in a very significant way, the confluence of factors that have made the distinction possible. One’s individual achievement, in a broad sense, is actually a collective effort. After all, no one ever makes it alone.
So when one graduates with cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, one can be proud that he or she has a very particular kind of achievement: a successful career as a student, at least partly the result of a favorable confluence of factors and conditions, which may or may not promise future success.
 It is something, but it is by no means everything.




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