The Dishonorable Side of Latin Honors

Latin honors and new Dean’s List policies will only exacerbate stress culture and discourage students from pursuing academic curiosities.

By Soham Mall

A few days ago, as I was getting ready to sleep, I went through my Twitter feed and email. Finding nothing of interest, I decided to check the next logical news source—the UChicago College Catalog. Turning to the widely-read Course and Grade Policies section, I was shocked to find an updated honors policy, revealing that the University was to start awarding Latin honors to students with GPAs in the top 25 percent of their major over the past five years. In lieu of any official announcements, students can refresh each page on the UChicago website to be notified of policy changes. In the same vein, if the administration ever decides to recognize the GSU, maybe the Provost will wear a different-colored tie to inform us. Transparency aside, the University has also created an award for the top 10 percent of second-years by GPA, and changed the Dean’s List requirement—now, the top 20 percent of students will be on the list, instead of students who met the former GPA cutoff of 3.25. Though some of the aforementioned honors will be awarded partially based on committee review, the shift toward GPA-based honors is unequivocally detrimental to the UChicago experience.

The addition of these accolades will exacerbate the preexisting stress culture at UChicago. Adding to overwhelming course loads, extracurricular responsibilities, part-time jobs, and career planning, amongst other pressures, additional academic strains will only worsen well-being on campus. After scores of appeals to improve mental health resources on campus, the administration seems to have taken a regressive stance on the issue. To see these awards as incentives to work harder is naive at a school already notorious for overworking its students. This change will not only harm those who struggle to reach the GPA cutoffs, but also those who are significantly below it. At a school packed with high achievers, inferiority complexes abound, and these honors provide students with more reasons to feel inadequate and hopeless. 

Those who believe Latin honors are just byproducts of hard work, nothing more than a reward for academic excellence, fail to account for the opposite—that high GPAs are often seen by students as catalysts to these honors, which ultimately serve as résumé-fillers. Grades become the vehicle to success rather than an accurate gauge of academic performance. I, for one, have attached too much weight to my grades, which is partly my own fault, but the addition of external GPA-related stress is harmful. Whenever I get a bad grade, I feel like my future has been carpet-bombed—I will do nothing in life, I will be jobless, and the only award I’ll win is World’s Smallest Brain. I don’t see my GPA as a reflection of my hard work or the rigor of my classes, but as a perpetually falling number that reduces my future prospects. To others who think similarly, Latin honors can become an unhealthy benchmark of success.

In light of these changes, GPA is king. Some students tend to take easier classes solely to boost their GPAs. While there is nothing wrong with this, GPAs consequently do not reflect academic excellence. They do not take into account the rigor of the classes taken, nor the extent of subject exploration by the student. Resultantly, the second-year award and the Dean’s List, both based solely on GPA, actually disincentivize academic rigor and will probably lead to further crowding of students in the Global Warming course. It will also harm those who decide to take classes that are challenging and/or cover subjects unfamiliar to them. The addition of these honors seems suspiciously like it was advised by some overweening economist chanting “Incentives create competition. Competition good!” rather than administrators who care about student health or scholastic exploration. This update belies UChicago’s purported life of the mind in favor of shallow accolades.

For honors above cum laude—that is, magna cum laude (top 15 percent GPA) and summa cum laude (top eight percent)—eligible students’ records will be reviewed by a College committee, “promoting students who have taken graduate courses, taking multiple majors, attempting courses across divisional boundaries, taking extra courses, and completing minors.” Admittedly, this is a more respectable and equitable procedure than a trivial GPA cutoff. But why is committee review reserved for only the highest honors? If they know that these factors matter when awarding honors, maybe they should review everyone eligible for the Dean’s List, second-year awards, and departmental awards. If that is too circuitous to be viable, then maybe it’s time to let Latin honors go the way of the Latin language and let them die. 

The honors policy changes do not encourage academic curiosity and definitely do not improve student well-being. In other words, they do not crescat the scientia, nor for that matter do they excolatur the vita. We really don’t need to keep copying Harvard—students will still apply here. Considering these are end-of-year honors, they can and should be amended or reversed as soon as possible.

Soham Mall is a third-year in the College.