The Latin Honours System Has To Go
story | Michael Sagna, Contributing Reporter
photo | Public Affairs
Ask any of our students this question and after traumatic flashbacks to writing their application essays, they would likely respond with something about pursuing a liberal arts education, community, or simply wanting something different. Our administration has the responsibility to do all it can to fulfill these promises, which they so proudly plaster all over the college website and drill into us at Experience Yale-NUS Weekend.
To these ends, I propose the abolition of the Latin Honours System at Yale-NUS College, which is currently under review by a board chaired by Associate Professor Hoon Eng Khoo, Rector of Saga College. This system was introduced in 2016, whereby students in the top 35% of each cohort are awarded distinct classifications of summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude based on their Cumulative Average Point (CAP) relative to their peers. As a first year, when I initially heard of the Latin Honours system, I was worried. This is a system which has the potential to foster toxic and unhealthy competition.
Firstly, this system perpetuates the idea that the most important facet of one’s college experience is the grade one achieves. For many of us, the choice to come to Yale-NUS – a bastion of progressive education in a less than democratic state – was motivated by the will to escape the academic rat race which takes place in universities all over the world. We sought an education rather than merely a degree. It is time for our college to reflect this.
There is a pervasive notion that Yale-NUS has significantly less grade inflation than its American counterparts, leading to steeper grading curves and naturally lower CAPs. Even from the perspective of a first year, it is clear that the college’s focus is primarily academic. I believe, as a college community, that we need to reevaluate our priorities. The college loves to boast about its wide range of extracurricular organizations and encourages us to do amazing things in our own time, while neglecting to give us time to do so. By abolishing Latin Honours, we can lessen this excessive focus on academics.
Hunter Davis ’22 raised the issue that the system may erode the value of a Yale-NUS degree, stating “A Yale-NUS degree should already carry enough weight in the labor market that it is not necessary for there to be different tiers.” As a new college, it is important that we support all of our graduates in every way we can. By imposing degree classifications, we are essentially fragmenting our cohorts into those who graduate with Latin Honours and those who do not. He also mentioned that if employers wish to see academic achievement while at university, they can look at our CAPs, which can be found on our transcripts. Thus the system proves to be redundant.
The College website states that one reason for this system is that other “leading institutions” have similar practices. I would argue, however, that what makes a university a pioneer is its ability to challenge outdated practices, rather than needlessly adopt the practices of others in an attempt to fit in and placate its raging inferiority complex.
Another distinction the administration forgets is that some of these colleges are hundreds of years old, and have extensive connections and thousands of alumni. As a college with an alumni base smaller than a thousand students, it is important that we do not pit our graduates, and by extension, our students against each other in the competitive job market.
By stratifying degrees, we are teaching students that in order for their achievements to be valid, they have to be quantitatively “better” than those of others – a notion which should be challenged. Latin Honours at Yale-NUS forces competition, something which I believe is detrimental in a college where major class sizes can often be smaller than ten.
Some may argue that competition is a natural part of society, and that it should be encouraged rather than avoided. However, the current system only informs students a few weeks before graduation if they have received Latin Honours, leaving them powerless to change their situation. This means that those who wish to graduate with Latin Honours will be working blindly, always unsure of whether their grades are good enough. This competition is not healthy, and is detrimental to the mental health of students of the college.
The panel conducting the review of the Latin Honours System needs to seriously reflect on the promises it made to us when we enrolled. While we cannot solve the overwhelming academic pressure students face solely by changing this system, it would be a step in the right direction. As members of a College born of a radical idea, it is our responsibility to continue innovating in the field of education. Abolishing the system is a necessary step along the road to reforming our college for the better.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com