Latin is a marvelous thing. As no doubt most people know, competency in Latin, along with ancient Greek, used to be a requisite component of many college admissions, even up through the early twentieth century—thus disqualifying me from going to school. Columbia managed to hold on to it until 1916, over four decades after the men of Harvard did—who, about at this time under Charles Eliot, were slowly losing their minds anyway. Princeton dropped the Latin requirement about the same time we did, though both they and Harvard have managed to keep alive the great tradition of the Latin salutatory at Commencement, which we regrettably lack. Now, nobody really speaks or understands Latin outside of Classics concentrators, which is probably some sort of loss for humanity. In Cambridge and Princeton, though, some plucky senior each year is picked out and talks, for five minutes or so, solely in the language of Virgil and Cicero, describing collegiate life in the ancient tongue. This is probably bizarre to many people. Why, after all, would parents and families, not to mention Latin-deaf students, have any desire to sit through an oration that is equivalent in their minds to gibberish? The reason is simple and plain. Commencement is a sacred rite of passage in academia, and one not to be handled lightly. We dress up in otherwise comical academic costume, proud of the light blue robes and marvelous caps that are dusted off once or twice a year for these august ceremonies. We drop the daily faded jeans and sandals and transform into serious scholars, for a few hours anyway. There is a deep sense of tradition here, for this moment has been shared by centuries of academics more or less in similar fashion. The absence, then, of the established Latin address is especially glaring. There are probably silly logistical excuses why the salutatory isn't there, but at heart it represents a sad concession that modern scholarship is somehow fundamentally different from that of the classical tradition, which forms the basis of our society. Columbia prizes the Core Curriculum and its roots back to the ancients with good cause. We study Ovid and Pericles, and can (hopefully) recognize Critias and Anchises—no small feat, incidentally, in modern academia. That is the great gift of this education, and it would be fitting, in my mind, to wrap up one's academic career with a rousing Latin speech. The degrees of Columbia College are conferred in this elegant language, after all, and there are few, if any, detractors of the Latin diploma. Columbia, of course, is itself a romanticized Latinization of the idea of America, named after her ostensible discoverer Christopher Columbus. Supposedly first employed by the English belletrist Samuel Johnson, the word "Columbia" appeared in the "Debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia" as a moniker for America. The "Debates" were a thinly-veiled political commentary that reproduced many of the positions of then-contemporary British statesmen, as explicit facsimile of Parliamentary procedures and speeches was strictly banned. "Columbia," then, was a foil—a projection of the ideas of what the country could be, subsequently taken by authors, poets, and writers to personify the greatness and goodness of America herself. Now, as then, Columbia should always be the repository of hopes and of thought about the things timeless and eternal. The philosophical quest for wisdom, which constitutes the bedrock of the University's mission, is always in some tension with things political, and the two keep an uneasy balance. Yet the exercise of reason, as you no doubt remember Aristotle saying, is one of the highest goods of man, and the Latin salutatorian can help us leave the busy din of the present and give us at least a moment back in the academy, where we seek truth and knowledge irrespective of the daily vicissitudes at hand. Columbia the school, then, is a hope, as is Columbia the emblem. As with most dreams, it is not Edenic, nor fully realizable, but it pushes us to strive for things we would not otherwise pursue. Perfection is not of this world, but that does not foreclose gratitude for shining Alma Mater on the Hudson shore. This school has its flaws but all in all, we leave the gates knowing some things that ought to be known and with people now ever bonded in amity. Commencement is a time when students join legions of Columbians past, present, and yet to come, and so, leaving these roaring streets, I say (briefly and shabbily), with no translation necessary, to the happy graduates: "Condiscipuli, vivite in lumine, et mementote vostra officia, et Columbiam." Stephen Wu is a Columbia College sophomore. The Remnant runs alternate Wednesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff