Honor Thy Student
story | Aditya Karkera, Opinion Editor
photo | Rachel Juay
The upperclassman, wonderfully wise in their own ways and warily wistful in others, is as fascinating a specimen as the rosy-cheeked first year student—unbounded in their own ways and unknowing in others. And so, when I learned that I’d be sharing a meal with one of my upperclassmen a few weeks into this first year, I was as excited as I was willing to learn more of the institution I had now become a part of. And while I don’t precisely remember what I had for lunch when I shared a table with one a few weeks ago, suffice it to say that I left the table with plenty to chew on. For while we’d discussed many things, none were as jarring as the Latin Honors question.
The Latin Honors question is not new to these pages, nor to the college in general. But what is novel (in some senses) is the administration’s response to the 160-signature-strong petition that pushed back, and the subsequent town hall, where the administration and students deliberated on questions of pay grades, academic competition, and faculty rationale. Beyond the genuine attempts at consensus building from both sides, the status quo stands as it did when The Octant first broke the news of the Latin Honors system: it shall proceed in the wrong manner of meaning, and in the right manner of intention.
The college’s intention is one that is sincere and measured (academic “excellence”), but its adverse translation into meaning is one that requires a different dimension to understand. To achieve this, we must give rest to the highly specific arguments of positive competition, intra-major percentiles, and NUS-comparable honors—each with their own proud proponents and opponents. Instead, I believe it is of import to rear the head of the issue back to those it affects the very most: the upperclassmen who have been forced, without their permission or knowledge, to become guinea pigs in an experiment that is not cruel, but is not called for either. To implement the Latin Honors system is less of a question of technicalities and formalities, but one of the spirit of Yale-NUS College as upperclassmen manifested it to be. Was it their mistake to embrace it as it was advertised to them—liberal, liberating, and liberated?
The promise of Yale-NUS to the first two cohorts was one that allowed students to dauntlessly chase after their academic pursuits, engaging in risks that were more thrilling than terrifying—falling down, picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, learning something new, and falling back down again until they were suited to make greater climbs. By imposing a system that retrospectively penalises such risks, the college has punished its pioneers for doing exactly what they wished for them to do in the first place. But the impact of incentivizing such academic safety is far-reaching. Newer cohorts, seeing the curve exhibit itself this coming year, will proactively seek to remain academically safe by, as they would see it, learning from the “mistakes” of their forebears and trimming the eccentricity of their academic careers at Yale-NUS. But these were never mistakes to begin with, and to trivialize the risks taken by earlier cohorts as “mistakes” does far more than undermine their academic courage—it sieges the spirit of what Yale-NUS was, and is, meant to be.
“It isn’t a disaster of epic proportions,” remarked one senior who wished to remain anonymous, “but it is pulling the rug beneath our feet. And while I’m fine with whatever turns out, I just think it’s unfair that we were proffered a liberal arts education without the knowledge that it’d come with a regular education’s compartmentalization.” And compartmentalization is a very real concern given the concentrated, compact character of our College. A sharper curve would entail far sharper competition, and intensified competition would spell for the college a fall in the bonhomie and unified spirit that defines its cohorts—at best. At worst, most students would take a page out of Aesop’s fables as they peer at a prize far too entrenched in stiff competition and, like the fox who pined for grapes beyond his reach, declare them too sour.
An implicit exhortation to academic safety would have newer cohorts plan out their academic careers such that standard routes replace the beautifully haphazard academic journeys of older cohorts. The clean, level, immaculate state of a highway that leads right to a magna cum laude seems more alluring than a bumpy, rugged, pothole-infested path with a million detours to either a summa cum laude, or nothing at all. But the latter is what makes us Kingfishers. We should never have to lose that innate, exigent urge to incessantly jump from plant to plant, pond to pond, and peak to peak. We should never have to settle in a cozy, watertight nest, because playing it safe is not what defines a life, much less the small fraction of it spent at our college.
While the administration’s wishes for an academically sharp student body is more than endorsable for a college as young as ours, it is by no means preferable. A student body should be allowed to stretch its wings and take flight, no matter how many times its feathers are ruffled by falls and failures. It must be the direction of the administration to best realize the ambitions of its older cohorts and the aspirations of its newer ones, and foster a college that celebrates the vibrancy of academic excellence before trying to compartmentalize it. At the end of the day, if I were looking for standard cuts of meat, I could easily walk into the dining hall.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org