I’ve written about this before, both passing on the wisdom of others talking to graduands/graduates (such as Bill Watterson, here) or briefly when five years ago I discussed what the ritual of graduation does.
I asked “What about the ritual? What is conferred, what is received? Is there a quasi-sacramental element here?” It is this that I want to return to, the grey Monday after the Brookes Graduation ceremonies.
Oxford Brookes (and other Universities) talk about graduands, people who will be given a new status. In the ancient University “down the hill” (I am writing in Brookes library), the ceremony has something of its ancient power and regulation, with candidates arriving dressed for one status and leaving dressed for another: ego admitto te /vos: I admit you, says the VC, and for the MA at Oxford this is the authorisation to teach, to lecture and dispute:
do vobis licentiam incipiendi in Facultate Artium… legendi, disputandi, et caetera omnia faciendi, quae ad statum Magistri in eadem facultate pertinent…
I give you licence to incept [begin to teach] in the Faculty of Arts …to lecture,
to dispute and to do all the other things that pertain to the rank of Master…
In another, Cambridge, the visual emphasis is oath/belonging but again is about admission – admitto te; in the third I’ve seen, St Andrews, the conferment of the hood is a key element – back to dress and status. The elements have their roots in the regulation of the Schools such as Paris and Oxford and in turn draw on clothing and ordination ceremonies in the Western Christian tradition. These have all drawn criticism of the ceremonial as based in intrinsically masculine symbolism, and while University leaders are often men there is an element that cannot be overlooked here. It is really compounded by the idea that the ritual does something: you come in without a degree and you go out with one; you come in without a license to teach, and leave able to do so.
Yes, this is where the ceremony stumbles, even in its ancient forms. What can you do today you couldn’t do on Friday? We have largely gone away from the ceremony as imparting some character, a sort of sacrament, or even a license, although some qualifications still have those elements when linked, as here, to professional standards.
I wonder if it’s time to rethink what a graduation ceremony does? If we think honestly about it, it seems to me to be about
If (and I have cited Brookes’ own vision before) this is about “academic, professional and social engagement to enhance our reputation as a university” how does the graduation fit in? It fits in because, although we are (sc. Brookes is) not a University that uses the ceremony as a rite of confirmation – in other words, if you don’t turn up, you still have your BA or whatever – what a graduation does is celebrate the belonging and the success-at-belonging in the University. The organisation – represented hierarchically by serious grown-ups such as the Vice-Chancellor and by tutors and other staff – shows how even when a course has finished, you still belong. That belonging means that our reputation is mutually enhanced: “we” are happy to call you a graduate member of the family, hoping that “you” are happy to be recognised as one. The day celebrates – in its oldest meaning the organisation gets its members to congregate for a ritual purpose, and in this case in a more modern meaning, to come together with joy – the successful conclusion of part of the relationship. Perhaps the studying and results are the most intense part of the relationship, but it is a relationship that continues…
The work the student has done allows their standing to be recognised. The academic exercises, successfully completed, bring about a recognition that this person or that has done the job they set out to do. The professionals that helped them to do it recognise that publicly (and ceremonially?) in a way that a message over the internet or by post does not do. Whether this actually needs marking by dress and processional is an interesting point – but maybe that debate is a different one. What might a graduation look like that was overtly inclusive? Specifically not rooted in Christian ritual or at least ecclesiastical history? Smaller? Bigger? Gownless (I don’t mean naked)? Started from the student, not the institution? How much might be gained or lost in the sentiments of belonging and standing? What might be gained?
I think that we would have to recognise that in a society where dress codes are less and less important, they do still have significance; where hierarchy is more about management of power than the more instant getting up when someone comes into a room, physical aspects of respect still impact on our understanding. And where ceremony has its place in weddings, funerals, birthdays (yes they do have forms and formulae) and physicality continues to be part of what it means to be human, maybe the graduation day is not ready to be ignored.
I hope not: I had fun.