Why is the text of my Saint Joseph’s University diploma printed in Latin?
Higher Education is steeped in tradition. Some of these traditions date from the Middle Ages and are common to many colleges and universities, while other traditions are more recent and particular to individual institutions. Collegiate architecture, academic language and dress, ceremonial regalia, collegiate colors, and athletic songs and chants, et cetera, have enriched the lives of students, faculty, and the public for centuries.
University diplomas printed in Latin are one of those traditions at North American institutions founded in the 18th and 19th centuries. They connect us to the Italian Renaissance when education based on the classics became the norm for the sons (and a few daughters) of the elite, as well as for those from the aspirational middle classes. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Cicero as a cultural and literary model in the Italian Renaissance.
The first Jesuit college, founded in Messina, Italy, in 1548 embraced the literary and rhetorical program of the Italian humanists according to patterns laid down by Cicero and Quintilian. The Jesuits focused their plan of studies on the so-called studia humanitatis, works of poetry, drama, oratory, and history. These essentially literary works were presumed not only to produce eloquence in those studying them but also to inspire noble and uplifting ideals. They would render the student a better human being, imbued especially with an ideal of service to the common good, in imitation of the great heroes of antiquity. One line from Cicero’s De officiis, especially embraced by the Jesuits, sums up this aspect of their educational ideal: “We are not born for ourselves alone,” thus: the contemporary Jesuit mantra, “Men and Women for Others.”
Throughout the formative years of Saint Joseph’s University, the curriculum was grounded in the Jesuit plan of studies, the Ratio Studiorum, which included courses in both Latin and Greek — twenty credit hours of Latin to be taken during freshman and sophomore years. Not even extracurricular activities escaped the classics for plays were often staged in Latin and Greek.
Given this training and cultural immersion, it’s understandable that Saint Joseph’s and other institutions committed to classical education would have expected proficiency in Latin from their alumni/alumnae and to announce that accomplishment proudly by awarding Latin diplomas at commencement ceremonies.
N.B. (Nota bene): Bona fide remnants of this academic tradition abound in many commonly used words and phrases in the English language and the legal lexicon. Even the word “campus” derives from the Latin word for “field.”