Latin Honors Requirement Change Prompts Campus Debate
Community reactions to the recent change in the college's Latin honors policy — especially the introduction of a breadth requirement — have revealed points of disagreement about the open curriculum and the symbolic value of Latin honors.
Last week’s faculty vote to institute changes to the Latin honors policy caught the student body by surprise and has prompted outspoken disavowals of the new breadth requirement for summa and magna honors from some students and faculty. The protests have been tempered by enthusiasm for the shift away from the use of class rank towards a median grade requirement for summa and magna honors. Among those who were more intimately involved in the development of the policy, however, some think that the reactive outcry is symptomatic of the campus’s democratic shortcomings.
Student and faculty discussion around both parts of the proposal has been pervaded by re-evaluations of what Latin honors should signify about the Amherst graduates who earn them, and whether the new policy corrodes or strengthens this value.
Beginning with the class of 2027, in order for Amherst graduates to earn summa or magna honors, they must have satisfied a breadth requirement that entails completing one course in each of four broad disciplines: humanities, social sciences, STEM, and art. (Current students may choose to be grandfathered into the new requirements if it would result in a higher honor.)
Some, like Diego Rao ’23, believe this change has uprooted the open curriculum — a cornerstone of Amherst’s academic identity, and its marketing to prospective students.
“For me, I think for a lot of people, the number one reason I came to Amherst was the open curriculum,” Rao said, “and I knew when I went to college, I didn't want someone telling me what boxes I had to tick.”
For Rao, the policy change is worrying not because he thinks it will engender more restrictive distribution requirements, but because it is a symbolic gesture by the college that devalues academic freedom.
“It is fundamentally a different philosophy [to say] we're going to let you pursue whatever it is you're interested in,” Rao said, “[but] if you want to have a seal of approval or Latin honors, you have to sort of meet our expectation of a full education.”
Jack Stephens ’23 echoed Rao’s concerns, and questioned whether the values that informed the policy change were fully realized by the committee.
“It doesn't feel super ideologically consistent,” he said.“They're saying, ‘We want students who qualify for honors to fulfill what we believe to be the values of the liberal arts, through this distribution requirement.’ Well, why don't you feel that way about all students?” Stephens asked.
“If you believe that you have to take classes in a variety of disciplines to fulfill the true meaning of liberal arts, why do we have an open curriculum?”
Chair of the CEP and William J. Walker Professor of Mathematics Robert Benedetto said in a message to The Student that this question went beyond the scope of the committee’s considerations, which were focused on responding to “specific complaints, both longstanding and recent,” about the old honors policy.
On a more tangible level, many students like Andres Pena ’23 have voiced concerns about the ways that the breadth requirement may corrode classroom culture. In a message to The Student, Pena summed up the worry that “[the breadth requirement] will fill classes with people [not] really wanting to take them.”
On Friday, Feb. 17, Pena asked whether anyone wanted to write a petition to repeal the breadth requirement in the campus-wide GroupMe, AmherstBussin.
Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22 served as a Senate representative to the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) for most of his time at Amherst and was integral in their development of the proposal. When asked about the frustrations of students like Stephens, Pena, and Rao, he emphasized the care that went into formulating this policy and the extent of the opportunities for students to get involved.
“[The policy] emerged out of two years of discussion among not only the committee at one point in time, but also as many [new] members came through,” over the years of policy development, Graber-Mitchell said.
The CEP is a nine-member committee of which AAS Senators fill three seats. Graber-Mitchell says this is a “fairly big” voting bloc for students, whom the college does not normally include in administrative decision-making. “ I wanted to make sure that not only [could] I have a say,” Graber-Mitchell said, “but also I would go to the Senate and ask what they thought. I would go to my peers and ask what they thought to make sure that student voices were being heard and helping shape that discussion.”
He continued, saying, “We [the CEP] spent a lot of time thinking about what honors should signify and what [an] honors policy does on campus. We spent a lot of time [discussing] liberal arts values and those include … the fact that we trust students to make educational decisions for themselves.”
Isaiah Doble ’25, a current AAS representative to the CEP, presented a different picture of the discussion, saying that it was less concerned with actual students’ perspectives, except to the extent that they overlapped with Amherst’s abstract ideals.
“For the breadth requirement part of the policy, a lot of the CEP’s discussion was rooted in the ethos of Amherst College as a liberal arts and open curriculum school, and how such an identity should manifest in our Latin honors policy,” Doble wrote in a message to The Student. “Something that was especially emphasized throughout our discussion was what we want ‘Amherst’s Ideal Student’ to be like as a recipient of high honors. Student needs were not discussed as laboriously.”
Though the resistance to the breadth requirement has been outspoken, other community members think that the reaction is overblown.
Regarding the commonly-cited fear that the breadth requirement will make classrooms less engaging, Sasha Heywood ’25 thinks that people are mourning an imaginary ideal; she cited intro-level classes as one example.
“If you've ever taken an intro class, you've been in a class with a bunch of people that don't want to be there. It's not a new problem,” she said. “[Or], you'll go to a discussion class where everyone has chosen to be there … and half the class never talks.”
Similarly, James J. Grosfeld Professor and Chair of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Lawrence Douglas believes that fears of the college abandoning the open curriculum are unnecessarily fatalistic, and miss what Doble says is the true intention of the breadth requirement: to “gently guide” students to explore the open curriculum.
“This a very mild breadth requirement, and I do think that the open curriculum is not meant to permit students to silo themselves in a particular academic domain,” Douglas explained. “The open curriculum … is meant to invite broad experimentation on the part of students, and this is something that is designed to encourage that for students who are intending to write a thesis.”
Douglas says that the shift from class rank to a median grade requirement is a much more significant part of the policy, and one that he pushed for wholeheartedly in faculty meeting conversations.
“I thought it was very unfair that so much emphasis was placed on the grade point average when the bell curve of grade point averages at Amherst College is so compressed,” he said. “Someone could write a summa quality thesis and then have one B+ on their transcript, and then suddenly would have a summa knocked down to a magna.”
The CEP similarly emphasized the increased equity of the new system in their policy proposal, the research for which revealed a discrepancy between the number of departmental recommendations and the actual granting of honors: Only 39 percent of the students who write “magna quality” theses earned magna honors under the old class rank system, whereas 94 percent of them would achieve magna honors under the new policy.
Nearly all the students who spoke with The Student, including Stephens and Rao, expressed excitement about this aspect of the proposal. Visiting Professor of Law Jurisprudence and Social Thought Nica Siegel ’14 also praised the change for giving departments more room to recognize students for high-quality research work. She also said that the breadth requirement’s incentive to engage in academic exploration would not be coherent without the shift away from class rank, which required near-perfection from Latin honors recipients.
Likewise, Stephens felt that the old class rank system was out-of-place on a campus where uncompetitiveness is the norm. When it comes to “evaluating achievement,” Amherst isn’t like other institutions, Stephens said. “We don’t have a Dean’s List, and we’re very hesitant about ranking people in that way. Having an objective standard [for honors] rather than a ranked standard makes a lot more sense to me.”
Graber-Mitchell, who graduated summa cum laude, sees the symbolic power of Latin honors as twofold. It communicates “externally” that a student embodies the values of the liberal arts and academic freedom, he said, but they also have an “internal” value for the students who earn them.
“We [the CEP] spent a lot of time thinking about who we think deserves honors from Amherst … [the breadth requirement] says to the world that we value the student that challenges themself in disciplines with which they have no experience,” Graber-Mitchell said. “[But], as a student, the most important part in the entire honors process was, for me, the departmental recommendation.”
Graber-Mitchell explained that the policy should be taken holistically, as it reflects the way that the external and internal value of Latin honors mutually informed one another in the final iteration of the policy. Benedetto echoed this point, explaining that the process by which the policy was formulated was replete with compromises.
“There are members of the campus community who feel that even the combination of the median, breadth, and honors thesis requirements is not rigorous enough, but I'm also sure that there are members of the campus community who feel it is too much,” Benedetto wrote to The Student. “At the most recent faculty meeting, there were also some votes to weaken (but not strike) the breadth requirement. At an even earlier faculty meeting, there was also discussion of abolishing Latin honors. Taken all together, those are wildly incompatible positions.”
Benedetto continued, “I'd argue that the desired proposal did a pretty good job of finding a decent compromise among those incompatible positions. Again, democracy requires compromise. And compromise generally means that no individual feels the policy is perfect.”
Graber-Mitchell emphasized that the policy change was thoroughly democratic. “Oftentimes, the administration doesn’t ask student opinions on its policies before it implements them,” Graber-Mitchell said. “This is not one of those cases. The faculty want to hear from us, and they value our voices.”
He acknowledged, however, that the democratic bond between the AAS and students has become weak. “I would regularly report to the Senate what I was doing on the CEP committee and ask for input from Senators and anyone else who was at the meetings, but obviously there’s a huge gulf between the AAS and the student body,” he said.
He continued, “I urge students, if they care, to get involved, to go to AAS meetings and ask about what's happening with CEP, and to be on the CEP themselves.”