Tag Archives: james burke

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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from the fishbowl to the glass house.

While skimming newspapers from the early 1960s for the paper I’m presenting at the upcoming SUNY 60th Anniversary Conference, perhaps the most earth-shattering development lay tucked in the middle of a Palladium-Times article on new student orientation in mid-September 1964:

All students filled out questionnaires for IBM data processing, which should make further improvement in the keeping of records and recording of grades in future semesters.

Even as the article showed how much more psychology-based and calculated student orientation was than even a decade earlier, this tidbit about the data processing still stands out the most. (Well, that and the college bragging that pre-payment of fees speeded registration, with some students able to complete registration in less than an hour … could you imagine a modern student waiting an hour for anything?)

The ever-booming Oswego campus of the ’60s hosted nearly 3,600 students that year — many times its World War II enrollment — so the nascent computerized system was needed to accommodate and track the influx. Now that we’re north of 8,000 students, I couldn’t imagine it flowing without online registration, computerized records and a thousand other authorized tasks we take for granted.

Yet I can’t help but think about a brilliant, and unintendedly prescient, observation by James Burke at the end of his PBS/BBC series The Day The Universe Changed. By mapping the world, he said in 1985 (!), we have mapped ourselves. What started as card questionnaires have turned into datasets that can tell anyone anywhere where we live and work, what kind of car we drive and the repairs to it, what groceries we bought last week and the last dinner out we charged. Cellphone photos and YouTube clips can deliver fame and infamy in the blink of an electronic eye.

Some 45 years ago, we aimed to track students, now we all can be tracked from pole to pole, minute to minute. We used IBM cards to put subjects into fishbowls, now we peer out of our glass houses. Every day in our online lives, we ponder if the line between the personal and the public has blurred; I almost wonder if it has disappeared. However different the styles and lifestyles, transportation and communication from two generations ago, how many things have changed more than the public nature of everything?

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