Written by Averill Pizarro, Manila Bulletin
Let me just come out and say it, so we can get it out of the way already — graduating with honors is overrated.
I graduated from UP Diliman a year ago with a degree in Philosophy, magna cum laude, and this is a lot less impressive than it sounds.
For one, my class, the Class of 2011, produced 21 summa cum laude, 215 magna cum laude, and 794 cum laude. The feat isn’t exactly extraordinary if 1,000 other people in the same room can do it too.
At the University graduation, only the summa cum laude get to sit on the stage with their parents, along with the members of the Board of Regents, former presidents and faculty.
Magna cum laude get to sit in the front rows, but it is not a big enough achievement — our parents have to sit at the back under the hot sun like everyone else.
Of course I wanted to graduate with honors, and it felt good when I did. Sometimes, it still does. My parents like telling their friends about it, and so do my aunts and uncles. Fortunately, as far as I know, none of them had a tarpaulin printed out and hung at the municipal hall.
I have to admit — magna cum laude looks very good on paper. Most people are immediately impressed when they hear about it — and one of them, my current boss, was impressed enough to offer me a job.
But that’s about as far as graduating with honors has taken me.
It got me into a job, but staying in the job, and performing well in it, is a different matter entirely. That’s a fact that people often miss: it doesn’t make you better or smarter than anyone else. It means you got better grades, but it says little about your intelligence, ability, or lack thereof, because most people who graduate with honors intend to graduate with honors but don’t intend to learn.
It’s easy to go through college taking all the easy professors and getting all the free unos, and graduating with a summa or magna or cum laude following your name. But this doesn’t mean you learned well, nor that you made the most of your opportunities, and this does not prepare you in any way to meet real challenges.
Most of the time it’s an investment in image rather than in substance, and it is a dishonor to the University that took time and money to teach you. It is easier to graduate with honors than to graduate with honor.
This is a lesson I first learned in UP.
On the first day of class, a Literature professor had asked us to introduce ourselves to her by submitting a list of all the real books we had ever read in our 16-year lives. “Don’t tell me you were valedictorian, or an awardee this or awardee that,” she said rather crossly. “Don’t tell me you were editor-in-chief of your high school paper. Guess what — we all were. Now tell me the books you’ve read when nobody asked you to and I will judge how well-prepared you are for this class.”
We were all frightened.
Today, though, she is still one of my best teachers, and that was still one of the best classes I ever took in my life.
I find that working is much the same. In our office especially, my boss has a habit of hiring honor graduates. Everyone is summa, magna or cum laude. Or a lawyer. Or has a master’s degree in something from prestigious universities here or abroad. It doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t determine the quality of your output. I came in as a fresh graduate, armed with honors, and I had to start from the bottom of the food chain, learn everything as I went along, and learn fast. Sometimes, the philosophy has helped me. The books I read in my spare time have helped me.
But I find that what has helped me the most in my job is not the cerbral knowledge I gained in my fours years in college, not the stuff that got me through exams and gave me good grades — it’s all the things and disciplines surrounding that, outside that, beyond that.
It’s the coolness under pressure, the habituation to deadlines, the initiative and foresight picked up from doing volunteer work that you get through experience, and by watching older people do something well.
It’s the clarity of mind and the determination to work well and hard even when a professor is discouraging or angry or aloof, and you don’t hope to get a good mark anyway, but you want to be able to say you gave it the best you have.
It’s the willingness to get your hands dirty and to give more than the minimum because you believe in the innate value of honor and excellence.
It’s all of these and more — the elements of a good education, about how well you learned, including, especially, from your failures — and such things just cannot be measured by numbers.
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