Friday, May 15, 2009

Latin diplomas: Form over Function

If there were any doubt that prestige and appearance are as much the currency of formal institutional education as the quality of knowledge they dispense to their students, this New York Times article will likely dispel it. The author, a professor of classical studies at a small American liberal arts college, rails against the use of Latin in college diplomas, stating:
Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight. The goal of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge — not the creation and transmission of prestige. Why, then, celebrate that education with a document that prizes grandiosity over communication?
Much time, money and effort has been invested in infusing prestige into the public image of elite academic institutions. The idea, perhaps, is that if it looks prestigious, then it must be prestigious. Thus universities knock on the doors of wealthy potential donors to pay for the construction of swank, impressive buildings and expensive infrastructure. All this is very good as long as it contributes significantly to the institution's primary goal of 'creation and transmission of knowledge'. But we all know that the greatest of ideas -- even scientific ones -- can emerge from amidst the most humble and even chaotic of physical environments, for it is the great minds and their ideas that matter far more than awe-inspiring campuses. Latin diplomas and fancy campuses are designed to persuade graduates, their parents and the rest of the world that the degrees granted were actually worth the money and time spent, and thus the graduates deserve not only respect but also lofty and well-paying positions in business, government and elsewhere. Purpose is often sacrificed for form, because it is so much easier to overwhelm people with visible form than with invisible, if substantial, content.

This is not an argument for creating dingy, cramped and underprovided educational campuses -- that would be an atrocity worse than the one described above. This is a plea for devoting the most attention to the purpose for which academic institutions exist in the first place.

When I was at the University of Texas at Austin I knew of at least one professor -- very popular among students for his commitment to teaching and his excellence at his work -- who was fired for not having a stellar research and publication record. I have observed a similar occurrence first hand at another American university. Research is the benchmark used for the selection and retention of faculty at top institutions in the US and there is no reason to fault such a criterion by itself. But for a public institution which came into existence (and continues to exist) principally to educate students, it is a travesty that it rids itself of an individual who excels at this task. In the United States, a university's prestige is linked to the research record of its faculty far more than the effectiveness with which it educates its students.

Prestige is important for the varied benefits it brings; but it is important not to lose sight of purpose.

1 comment:

  1. How true this all is. I used to know a lecturer at a prestigious university who finally became overwhelmed by his teaching load and quit his job. He was handling the overload of dozens of students who came to him because the professor they had been assigned to could not be bothered to counsel them -- he was too busy doing research. The research meant that his job was secure -- so secure that he could ignore his students and let his colleagues do all the grunt work. Sad.