Every spring at my university's Convocation, an undergraduate addresses the assembled students, parents and faculty in Latin. Parents receive a plain copy of the text, which few of them can read. Most of the students can't read it either. But they receive a different, annotated version. Footnotes, always written in Latin - 'hic ridete'; 'hic plaudite' - identify in-jokes and references to local and national events. By clapping, catcalling and laughing, the graduating seniors delude their parents - so local tradition has it - into believing that that their children have not only studied engineering, English or chemistry, but also learned Latin. No one takes the ritual entirely seriously. This year's speaker doffed his academic gown and mortarboard to reveal that he was wearing a toga and a laurel wreath. A previous one interrupted his speech to hold up a sign, in English, asking a female classmate to marry him. (She agreed.) But the Latin oration still matters. Like the Princeton campus's splendid trees and hideous buildings, like This Side of Paradise and The Duke of Deception, it forms part of the hazy, glowing nimbus of traditions and practices that renders four years in central New Jersey worth the formidable current price of some $140,000.
LRB 1 November 2001 | PDF Download