Of summas and scholars
A record-breaking 54 summa cum laudes (“with highest honors”) graduated from the University of the Philippines (UP) main campus in Diliman this year, plus a couple more from the state university’s other campuses. UP Mindanao produced its first summa (in food technology) since its establishment in 1995, while UP Los Baños also produced one (in applied mathematics).
The crop of summas is nearly twice that of last year, when there were 29 in UP Diliman (the previous two years saw 30 and 36), so the big jump this year is truly remarkable. Meanwhile, 437 graduated with a magna cum laude and 1,173 with a cum laude, up from last year’s 402 and 1,004, respectively.
This time of the year, during graduation season, such numbers tend to spark discussions on possible grade inflation, implying that professors may have become more generous with grades through the years, thereby “cheapening” the Latin honors. Those who are inclined to this view note how the number of summa cum laude graduates yearly in UP started going above 20 in 2010, and appears to be generally rising ever since. Back in 1975, the entire UP system produced only one summa cum laude, from UP Los Baños; UP Diliman had none.
Are grade-stingy “terror” professors a dying breed indeed? Are more sociable and image-conscious millennial teachers who are more nurturing and grade-lenient taking their place, helping bring about this perceived grade inflation?
A contrary view maintains that the current generation of millennials and Gen Zs are genuinely smarter for various reasons, and hence truly deserve the Latin honors no less than their forebears did. I have written on the seeming evidence behind these opposing views before (“Sampu ‘sampera?,” 6/27/17 and “Grade inflation, or brain boom?,” 7/1/16), and will not repeat them here.
My focus this time pertains to a quote from this year’s lone UP Los Baños summa cum laude graduate, Helbert Paat, who said “it’s not my ‘acads’ (academic performance) that defines my worth.” Most of us, whether scholars or “singko-lars” (alluding to the UP failing grade of 5), probably instinctively see the truth in this. One only needs to cite famous dropouts like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Apple founder Steve Jobs or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for proof; there are many more examples closer to home. I sampled one year’s outstanding alumni awardees honored by the UP Alumni Association, and found that only 9 out of 36 awardees in 2014 graduated with Latin honors—and none of them was a summa cum laude.
What I’d be pleased to see more of among the 2019 graduates are the likes of Reycel Hyacenth “Hya” Bendaña, daughter of a jeepney driver and this year’s valedictorian at Ateneo de Manila University, whose inspiring essay and commencement address went viral on social media. Or Thomas John “TJ” Tenedero, son of a magbobote (junk gatherer), whose personal saga toward finally earning his BS Agricultural and Applied Economics degree at UP Los Baños has drawn thousands of Facebook “likes,” catching attention in the mainstream media as well.
In a country where a UP or Ateneo degree opens doors most Filipinos would not even get to, much less enter, making UP’s and Ateneo’s doors open to more Hyas and TJs is a worthy goal. In her moving commencement speech, Hya mused: “Every graduation, Atenean seniors are told to go ‘down from the hill.’ This year, perhaps it is time to ask why there is even a hill at all … As long as society has not overcome bigger, deeper problems—social discrimination, stark economic inequality and the concentration of political power in the hands of the few—there will always be something better to struggle for.”
Hya earned a cum laude in her educational journey at Ateneo that was made possible by the generosity of individuals that funded her scholarship. TJ, a beneficiary of the state university’s socialized tuition scheme, was an iskolar ng bayan, and literally a singko-lar by his own account; he overcame a succession of 5’s and course retakes until he finally earned his UP degree.
Both triumphed over adversity, and Latin honors or none, I know both are set to make their own marks to help shape a better future for our nation.
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