In “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe satirized the tendency of prosecutors and the media to label every black child victimized by crime an honor student He must be smiling at the legacy that tendency has spawned which can be seen in the title of this piece. It is a portion of a NYT headline for an article about an ex-con who recently graduated and is pictured smiling and shaking hands with another graduate, both in the full regalia of cap and gown. (Walking the Long Road From Isolated in Prison to Magna Cum Laude, Katharine Q Seelye, NYT 5/14/17). Kyle Gathers, now 31, has spent the better part of ten years in prison, two in isolation, for drug-dealing and shootings. Since being released, he enrolled in a program at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, specializing in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning technology; it is this program to which the title refers.
In googling such programs, I discovered that they vary from two to four semesters for which students earn a certificate or technical certificate. It is laudable that Mr. Gathers seems to have turned his life around and is now qualified to get a bona fide job and become a law-abiding member of society. It is ludicrous to apply the honorific of magna cum laude to this endeavor. It is universally accepted that students must have a GPA between 3.8 - 3.9 and be in the top 3- 5% of their graduating class in order to qualify for this honor. Until recently, this was reserved for students who completed a B.A. , B.S. or equivalent degree. Now it is used for students who complete two semesters of a technical course and perhaps soon it will apply to those who get certified as cosmeticians, hairdressers, manicurists and health care aides.
Even though achieving members of society have been told to check their privilege, we don’t call every college graduate “doctor” just as we don’t use the terms “Officer, senator, justice or maestro” indiscriminately. By buying in to the charade that students who complete a non-academic program are deserving of the ceremonial trappings of academe, we devalue the achievement of those who have earned those merit badges the hard way - appropriately. The tradition of wearing caps and gowns dates back to 12th century early European universities in which clerics, who were the scholars of that time, wore their robes for warmth in unheated buildings. The caps, known as mortarboards, reputedly derive from the birettas worn by scholarly clerics to signify their intelligence and superior accomplishment. In succeeding centuries, this garb became popular for other educated people down into the 21rst century But since both the clothing and the honorifics are symbols of academic scholarship, they don’t belong in completion ceremonies for technical certification. The sombrero is a Spanish hat adapted in the 15th century from those worn by Mongolian horsemen for several previous centuries. Yet wearing one on Halloween has been deemed an act of cultural appropriation by today’s snowflakes and their academic leadership. Their voices have not been raised to protest the use of clothing and terminology traditionally reserved for high scholarship in ceremonies for technical certification. This is not only cultural appropriation - it is more specifically fraudulent misrepresentation.
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