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Graduation, A Peculiar Ceremony

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Graduation is supposed to be a celebration of learning. But how do we celebrate? Answer: through an esoteric ceremony of symbolic processions, recessions, and costumes that seem more reminiscent of Halloween than higher education. By this I don’t mean to demean the accomplishments of graduates; rather I only wish to point out the irony of celebration that is supposed to commemorate higher learning but which most of the attendees – including the graduates – don’t understand.

Nowhere is this gap more apparent than in graduation apparel itself. Honestly, does anyone really know why graduates wear long robes, hoods, mortarboard caps, and tassels? Sure, they’re “traditional,” but what does that mean?

In fact, the origins of the cap and gown date back nearly eight hundred years to the twelfth and thirteenth century when most scholars were members of the clergy. At that time, the typical garb for a clergyman was a clerical robe and cap and its primary function was to help the clergyman stay warm in unheated buildings – usually churches.

In 1321, the practice of wearing robes was expanded to include scholars who were not members of the clergy. At this point, universities were trying to discourage “excess in apparel” and thus mandated robes as the standard form of academic dress. From this point on, universities slowly began introducing other practices, such as using caps, sleeves, and hoods to signify an individual’s rank or degree. Practices continued to evolve: hoods were eventually replaced by mortarboard caps with tassels, and robes and cords soon changed colors in order to signify certain areas of study.

As with most products of a lengthy evolution, graduation dress and ceremonies are now extremely diverse. Relatively few universities (such as those in the United States) have adapted a standard system of colors and dress. As such, graduation at any university in any years is an indecipherable melange of several traditions, including the medieval church, secular universities, local precedent, and even some pagan groups (for instance, the hood was borrowed from Celtic Druids) – hence, a peculiar ceremony.

Graduation is peculiar not only because it draws liberally and unabashedly from several traditions but also because each university does it a little differently, which makes each individual ceremony distinct. On the one hand, this seems terribly ironic – how can such a confused and insoluble ceremony be the capstone of an education devoted to order, knowledge, and unity? On the other hand, this seems terribly appropriate – after all, what better way to celebrate the remarkable diversity of individuals and ideas that constitute a liberal education? Frankly, I’m torn.

In the final analysis, I’m not sure my investigation of graduation ceremonies cast much light on its true significance. I will continue to attend these semi-annual ceremonies with head-scratching awe and wonder why tassels are moved from one side to the other, why caps are thrown in the air, and, most of all, where does “Pomp and Circumstance” officially end and where does it begin again?

I just keep reminding myself that in its most basic sense, graduation is a rite of passage – a movement from one stage of life into the next – and like most rites of passage, it only makes sense with the benefit of hindsight. As such, its significance and even its symbolism will be unique to each graduate, who will someday look back and wonder, like myself, what to make of this peculiar ceremony.

Benjamin Welch has been a college instructor in writing and composition for nearly six years. When he’s not teaching or playing golf, he offers advice for students seeking information about distance learning and adult education. Learn more about Careers and Online education by visiting Classesandcareers.

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