Commencement ceremonies: From the 12th century until …?

Student at commencement

Imagine that through some divine provenance the founder of your college or university was allowed one day to see their creation in 2017. Much of it would look quite strange and incomprehensible. Yet if they strayed into your graduation ceremonies, these rituals would appear quite familiar — even if your college was founded in the 18th or 19th centuries.

In his monumental series “The Day the Universe Changed,” science historian James Burke said that rituals are ways that societies and institutions can make episodes of change feel comfortable and supported. Think about wedding ceremonies: The addition of hashtags notwithstanding, the way most couples tie the knot has not changed much in centuries. Ditto baptisms and funerals. And commencements.

Commencement ceremonies date back to the 12th century, and while they no longer proceed in Latin, the graduation gowns don’t necessarily look dissimilar. But tradition holds its strongest sway in things most formal:  The suit that hundreds of men (me included) will wear at this weekend’s commencement ceremonies date back to military formalwear of a bygone era; their cut and style may change but in 100 years you would likely see something similar at weddings and funerals and graduations.

But will we still have commencements then? When people can telecommute or technologically be present anywhere in the world, will the class of 2117 still be in the same large halls as trumpeters, robes and parades of academic regalia?

I’m betting we will. We’ve already gone through a couple of decades of the fastest technological evolution in history and what has changed about graduations? With the exception of live web video streams, not all that much. Some bold colleges have played with things like hashtags and near-real-time photos appearing on big screens, but that’s window dressing.

Sure, students can tweet, stream, post, gram and snap during the ceremonies, but they still do so while wearing a robe, then accepting a diploma frame and handshake from some prominent official and strolling down a ramp, beaming toward the audience celebrating their amazing accomplishments.

In the 21st century, as we spend more time online, study after study finds people feel lonelier and more disconnected than ever. That’s why our social and community gatherings, especially those ones rooted in tradition, become more important than ever.

The more some things change, the more they stay the same. It will be interesting if future historians will look back upon this year’s graduation ceremonies and see it as something comfortable and familiar.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Commencement ceremonies: From the 12th century until …?

  1. Maybe holographic students walking across a virtual stage in 2117? I prefer to think that the important ritual of commencement will endure. Thanks for this thoughtful post!

  2. Tim

    Thanks, Andrew! Maybe that will happen, maybe it will. But I think that the sense of community will remain important.

  3. Pingback: Friday Five: Cap and gown edition – Higher Ed Marketing

  4. Sarah Jeal

    I like to think we’ll still gather to celebrate. Lots of the comments on our graduation social media posts were from past students, all reliving their own graduation day. The buzz of the day really tapped into their nostalgia. Funny how each year is different while remaining true to the traditions – one of the highlights of my calendar!

  5. Tim

    Sarah: I think that’s true as well. Tradition, especially the happiest moments of our lives, has a strong pull. It is, indeed, always a highlight. Thank you!

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