Although Marlborough changed how cum laude students were honored this year in response to the discomfort caused by public recognition, other independent schools continue to recognize cum laude students in all-school assemblies. However, interviews with students, faculty and administrators at five independent schools in the greater Los Angeles area (Brentwood, Crossroads, Harvard-Westlake, Loyola, and Oakwood) revealed that attitudes toward cum laude are determined not by how students are honored but rather by the culture and values established by the school and students.
Although each school presents academic awards in a unique fashion, with some holding an evening event for only those honored and others announcing cum laude members at class meetings, all five schools interviewed for this article recognized students in at least one assembly attended by both award recipients and the rest of the student population.
Mitch Kohn, 9th and 10th Grade Academic Dean at Crossroads School said that cum laude is important in recognizing students who excel academically, because unlike arts and athletics, academics are not as easily noticed.
“People can go out and see your game and see your excellence or they can go out to a show and see your excellence as an actor, whereas as an academic, your peers aren’t reading your papers so they don’t necessarily have a sense of your academic excellence and so it’s particularly nice for kids to recognize for that,” Kohn said.
Garret, a senior at Crossroads, said that he knew relatively little about cum laude before being inducted and that the award is more of an acknowledgement of student accomplishments than a way to exclude anyone.
“[The school] tries to downplay all of the awards as much as possible because every award is more of a celebration of the class. We just kind of accept the awards as something that happens,” Garret said. “We don’t beat up all the non-cum laude kids. People are obviously just motivated to perform their best, but we’re not in direct competition with each other.”
Loyola Principal Frank Kozakowski said that at Loyola’s awards assembly, which acknowledges accomplishments ranging from cum laude to community service, no particular area is emphasized over another. However, Kozakowski said that he does choose to highlight certain areas in order to tailor his message to the all-boys environment.
“We have to promote the arts a little bit. It’s very much a part of our education, but it’s really not something that I think boys think much about, and here we’ve got students winning national awards and having a painting hung in the White House. I think there’s some inspiring message to that,” he said.
Kozakowski also mentioned that having attendance at the awards assembly be mandatory is extremely important to him, because he sees the event as an opportunity for boys to be inspired by their peers.
“I think a freshman sitting in the audience should hear [about student involvement with community service] and maybe something clicks in and he goes, ‘Going to Loyola is more than just doing well in my classes,’” Kozakowski explained.
Robert, a senior at Loyola, said that he thinks the awards are spread out evenly over various disciplines and that cum laude as well as other awards are necessary.
“I think [cum laude] is great. I think you’ve got to do it. These seniors have worked four years, especially for cum laude, working really hard, taking honors and AP classes,” he said. “[All students] deserve to be awarded whether for grades or for whatever you do.”
Harvard-Westlake junior Reyna tells a different tale. Calderon said that she feels that the awards assembly is demoralizing for some people, and that it would be better to acknowledge cum laude students in the newspaper than in an assembly.
“I think you’re proud of those people and sometimes those people are your friends, but it’s also kind of this elitist thing and it doesn’t necessarily need to be in my face. It kind of makes it into this affair as almost a mini graduation for people. Their whole family is there and everyone has to clap,” she said.
Max, also a junior at Harvard-Westlake, said that there seem to be fewer academic awards than sports awards, although he said he thinks that discrepancy is justified.
“They don’t give that many [academic] awards for a reason—to keep kids sane,” he said.
Oakwood senior Scot said that awards in general just don’t seem to fit in with the non-competitive, all-inclusive environment at his school, which does not participate in cum laude at all.
“It’s a very personal community and obviously awards aren’t natural to that. [Awards are] not part of the culture. At the end of the day, no one really pays attention to awards. They’re there if they’re there, but most people don’t remember what awards were given out,” he said.