Friday, May 15, 2009

The treason of the clerks

Alice, shut your eyes.*

Christopher Francese, a professor of classics at Dickinson College, has published a well-reasoned and traitorous essay in The New York Times advocating the abandonment of Latin in college diplomas.

I don’t much care that graduates cannot read their own diplomas. The Universitas Syracusana, which conferred on me the degree Artium Magistri thirty-four years ago, has as its motto SUOS CULTORES SCIENTIA CORONAT, generally rendered as “Knowledge crowns those who seek her.” I doubt, judging from the noise level in the library during my time there, that Syracuse undergraduates paid much more attention to the English version. But I believe it still.

Diploma Latin, artificial and obscure as it is, is a link to the past, however tenuous. And you, graduate, you with your major in whatever was easiest for a passing grade, you see in the Latin on that piece of paper you will never look at again a link between your own feckless pursuit of knowledge and Bologna in the twelfth century, where the first university in Europe began the laborious recovery of learning for the West.

Frame the thing and put it on the wall. The Latin will do you no harm.

*My daughter, Alice Elizabeth Marian McIntyre, who holds an honors degree in Latin and Greek from Swarthmore, teaches Latin at the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills and will teach a unit of Latin this summer for a Center for Talented Youth class at Dickinson College.


  1. If you've majored in a subject for four years and still can't figure out the meaning of the Latin, you probably weren't paying attention and should think about taking up something else.

  2. Classics scholars tend to disdain post-1600 Latin anyhow, so it's not really too surprising.

  3. I do believe I met or corresponded (or both) with Professor Francese when I applied and almost went to Dickinson.

    Also -- get your facts straight! I am teaching Latin for CTY at Dickinson.

    And to Mr. Cowan -- I disdain no Latin. I advocate for the survival of all Latin. Pig Latin even amuses me on occasion.

  4. I love the Latin diplomas. My degree from Smith is an A.B., not a B.A. Latin and Greek were required courses when I attended Bryn Mawr in the 60s.

  5. One interviewer asked me if I knew I had the "B.A." reversed on my resume.

    And to Alice -- welcome to central Pennsylvania. Feel free to contact me if you don't know anyone in the area -- we can at least feed you some evening, although my cooking might not be up to your brother's standards.

    Barbara Phillips Long

  6. I thought Alice was told to keep her eyes shut...

  7. Latin is still considered a more international language than English in many European countries--France, for instance, and multilingual Switzerland--and copies of diplomas are often required for job applications. The Latin nomenclature makes a degree recognizable outside one's own country and language group, and puts a foreign-born candidate on a more nearly equal footing with native applicants.

  8. Alice M: I didn't mean my comment to be personal. I still remember, though, my late high school Latin teacher's scathing remarks on Winnie ille Pu (but arse [sic] longa, vita brevis, say I).

    I myself have no degrees or diplomas at all, perhaps overcompensating for my father, who went to school a lot (it was the Depression) and wound up as Thomas A. Cowan, A.B., B.A., M.A., Ph.D, LL.B, S.J.D.

  9. Bucky, daughters named Alice are notoriously independent. (well, daughters in general are; and at least one well-known daughter named Alice was)

    I too have a Latin-loving independent-minded daughter--but she's still learning it.

  10. @Barbara Phillips Long: I wonder if your interviewer was the same one who thought it appropriate, when I applied for a writer position, to begin the interview in the building's vestibule not by asking how I was or stating that it was nice to meet me, but by asking which style manual I was accustomed to using; and when I replied that it was Chicago, asked me if I knew, therefore, that I had used an em dash on my résumé dates rather than an en dash. Later on in the interview, when he handed me off to a coworker for a chat, she too opened the conversation by pointing out my gaffe. That was acceptable, because by then I had decided I didn't want the job anyway. (To be fair, Mr. En Dash said many more snarky things than that.)

  11. John, since you consider yourself a moderate prescriptivist, do you cringe when someone says "I graduated XYZ University" rather than "I graduated from XYZ University", or the pompous but traditionally correct "I was graduated from XYZ University"?

    Something tells me you will remind us that there are many things of greater importance to worry about. I'm afraid I'm more prescriptivist than you. I can say "I graduated from" in conversation, but cannot bring myself to write it. Happily, the "when in doubt, rewrite" rule has served me well: "Robin received a Master of Arts degree from XYZ University in 1982." (Don't even get me started on "Master's of Arts"....)

    By the way, SUOS CULTORES SCIENTIA CORONAT always puts a smile on my face, even when I see it on a T-shirt.