FOR MOST Thomasian graduates, walking out of the Arch of the Centuries is the culmination of University life. But it’s the dream of every student to leave the portals of the University bearing a Latin honor as testament to his or her scholastic achievement.
Today, the Latin honors—cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude— are awarded to students who have obtained general weighted averages of 1.46-1.75, 1.21-1.45, and 1.00-1.20, respectively.
UST was one of the first educational institutions in Asia to adopt the European system of academic honors, under the influence of Spaniards. Augusto de Viana, chairperson of the History department, said the Spanish colonial education system required students to write a thesis to earn a degree.
Back then, Latin honors were called meritus (merit), bene meritus (good merit), and meritissimus (highest merit). They were conferred on students who had successfully defended their theses or dissertations before a tribunal of professors.
“UST was the only institution that had the right to give degrees,” De Viana said.
A panel would decide on the merits of a student’s work by marking cards known as ficha. The letter M indicated that the dissertation or thesis had earned a meritissimus. If all ficha were marked with the same letter, the candidate for graduation was deemed excellent.
“During the time of Rizal, we had what was called sobresaliente, or excellent, and there were others such as saliente and notable. These were also honors,” De Viana said.
De Viana said receiving Latin honors signified that a student rose above the rest of the graduates. “Economic-wise, you are the one who would be hired, [not] the student who just earned a passing mark. Because you’re an excellent student, people will expect a lot from you. They value your opinion and your expertise,” he said.
The three ‘laudes’
The conferment of Latin honors known today started in the American period, during graduation ceremonies as practiced in the West. But historians are still disputing when the awarding of the three “laudes” exactly began in the Philippines.
Harvard College was the first university in the United States to bestow such honors in 1869. In 1880, top graduates of Harvard received all three Latin honors now adopted all over the world.
UST is the only higher education institution in Asia that still bestows the former Latin titles. The UST Graduate School and Faculty of Civil Law still confer meritus, bene meritus and meritissimus on students with exceptional dissertations and theses.
“It came as a matter of course in view of the natural and logical tendency to publicly honor the best students during graduation. It is a practice patterned after law schools' graduation ceremonies in European countries,” Civil Law Dean Nilo Divina said in an interview.
In UST, however, graduations are called solemn investitures or commencement exercises. “We do not want to say graduation because it means you’re done. It’s actually the beginning,” De Viana said.
This is the reason first-year students are called freshmen, because they are new to the University, he said. Meanwhile, a sophomore (from the Latin words sophos or wisdom and moros or dumb) is supposed to be in the middle, and presumed to be better than a freshman.
“When you’re a junior, you’re nearing the top. You’re on your way. When you reach fourth year, you’re already at the pedestal, you’re almost finished,” De Viana said.
The baccalaureate ceremony itself is said to have originated from the 1432 Oxford Statute, where each bachelor who wanted to receive a degree was required to deliver a speech in Latin.
The baccalaureate, from the Latin words bacca and lauri or “a bachelor with laurels,” was the culminating part where awards such as the Latin honors and the degrees were given.
Other historians say the ceremony was derived from the medieval European custom of vesting apprentices or knights with titles to elevate their positions after the completion of training or a task. This system of promotion is equivalent to the awarding of degrees today.
In a unique UST tradition, Thomasians exit the Arch of the Centuries to signify the opening of doors to a new life outside the University.
“When you entered, you didn’t know anything, but as you continued to stay, you became wiser,” De Viana said. “When you go out of the portal, not necessarily the Arch of the Centuries, it means you are ready to face the world because the University has already equipped you with the skills and knowledge and hopefully, wisdom.”
The academic dress and cap of graduates also trace their origins to medieval Europe. The graduation cap or hat, which was often square and hard, is said to have been used in Oxford University in the 16th century. The academic dress or gown was first worn in the 12th or 13th centuries.
The transfer of tassels from left to right means a “transition from a mere student to a graduate,” De Viana said.