The new amendments to the Latin honors policy have proven to be highly controversial among the student body, with many denouncing it as the end of all the things they love so much about Amherst’s academic culture. It seems to me, however, that the new Latin honors policy is defensible, and I argue that it should be welcomed as a positive change on campus.
But first, let me lay my cards out flat: I’m an Association of Amherst Students (AAS) representative on the Committee on Educational Policy, which was responsible for proposing the change to the faculty. I’ve worked directly on the policy amendments — and I’ve spent a lot of time discussing its merits. I understand that I, maybe more than others, have something at stake in how these changes are received. But still, I find most of the arguments being made against the new policy just don’t hold weight. I’ll be addressing arguments made against the breadth requirement, and then moving to argue for how other changes to the policy promote risk-taking and advance curricular equity.
The Breadth Requirement
The most frequent argument made against the new breadth requirement is that it will silently kill the open curriculum and destroy our lively classroom culture. Students will be forced to take classes they otherwise wouldn’t have taken. They’ll be less inclined to participate, and classroom discussions will be dull. However, this all stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to pursue Latin honors. In the event that a student should choose to go for Latin honors — the same way they might choose to pursue the pre-med track, for example — they’ve placed upon themselves a number of subjective limitations they then have to fulfill in order to achieve their goal. The same way a student who wishes to become a doctor has to take “Organic Chemistry,” a student who wants to graduate summa will have to take a single course in each of four broad academic categories: humanities, social sciences, STEM, and the arts. If there are restrictions placed on a student’s academic freedom, it’s only because they chose to put them on themselves.
Those who say the new policy destroys our classrooms can be countered in one of two ways. Firstly, going back to the pre-med analogy, is it the case that because pre-med students are forced to take chemistry, for example, that all of Amherst’s chemistry classes are dull and boring? No, because the students still need to do well. No med school is going to accept a straight-D pre-med student, and no student that has a median grade below A- can qualify for Latin honors. Secondly, I think we can agree that calling our classroom culture lively is a bit of an exaggeration. I’m sure many of us have been in intro classes in which the same four students were the only ones who spoke. At its worst, the new policy couldn't possibly make this worse.
Many who criticize the change also argue that it will reinforce age-old academic divides, and make Amherst students more competitive. To the first point, if it can be said that naming four divisions of academic study implicitly communicates to students that different areas of study don’t influence each other — that, for example, STEM students have nothing to learn from the humanities — then what does that say about the major system as a whole? Is it the case that an economics major has nothing to learn from a Sexuality, Women's & Gender Studies (SWAGS) class simply because they’ve declared themselves in economics and the SWAGS class doesn’t fulfill a requirement? Naming and differentiating a discipline does not necessitate that it be isolated from the influences of other subjects.
Arguments about how the new policy only makes students more competitive appear to be both inconsistent and lacking a complete understanding of the changes to the Latin honors requirements. Firstly, many argue that having the breadth requirement forces students to have to adjust their course plans early on in order to be able to fulfill each of the four requirements. This, to me, appears to be inconsistent with the supposed value of the open curriculum: New courses are created every year, and amazing new professors are hired all the time. Thus, having a four-year course plan would be completely at odds with what the open curriculum has to offer. In addition, the new policy, by removing the class rank requirement, has actually made things less competitive, as students will no longer have to compete with their classmates for a spot in the top quarter of their class.
Furthermore, the entire premise that we’d be forcing a large number of students into classes they wouldn’t otherwise have taken seems largely false. Data from the new Latin honors proposal shows that over half of Amherst students naturally fulfill the Latin honors requirement. And at most, it would put a typical student in a position where they would only have to take one extra class.
The new breadth requirement stems from the idea that a student graduating with Latin honors should exemplify the highest ideals of a liberal arts education — that they should be academically eclectic. One might argue against this by saying that what’s done for the best of us should apply to the rest of us: that if the best of all Amherst students are required to fulfill the breadth requirement, why aren’t all of us? To that, I’d raise the question of why that has yet to be brought up about the thesis requirement. If the best of us are required to write theses, why aren’t the rest of us? It seems to be the case that one may be able to justifiably wish one thing for the most highly motivated students and a separate thing for the others, without it being something that necessarily denigrates the latter group. After all, isn’t that what all those honors and AP classes we took in high school were about? Not every student needs to — or should — fulfill the requirements for honors.
Amherst students are already pretty risk-averse as it is, and the old Latin honors policy, based on class rank, seemed to only make it worse. Being that only the top 25 percent of the class was eligible for honors before, students seeking Latin honors were incentivized to take the easiest classes they could and use a pass-fail option for anything below an A. The new policy, having removed the class rank requirement, takes away this perverse incentive within our curricular system and allows students to take more risks.
The old Latin honors policy made it much harder for students from underrepresented backgrounds to graduate with honors. First-generation and/or low-income students, for example, who come to Amherst having yet to become accustomed to the workings of elite institutions, were at a distinct disadvantage. While their peers are more likely to arrive at Amherst with a solid sense of what it takes to succeed, many first-gen students, through no fault of their own, struggle to achieve the sense of ease their privileged peers have — sometimes resulting in them having worse first-year grades. This, previously, may have been enough to rule them out of gaining honors.
The new policy makes graduating with honors all the more accessible, ensuring students who make mistakes have greater legroom to achieve in spite of them. It should be praised not only in this respect, but for all the reasons I’ve given above. It’s time we as students stop lamenting the death of the open curriculum, and welcome this progressive change to our academic structure.