I’ve counted them up and I’ve attended more than one hundred graduation ceremonies. These include both my brother’s and my graduations from kindergarten, both daughters’ graduations from middle school where the same speaker was in the running for worst graduation speech ever (she was replaced), multiple high school graduations and so many graduations for the universities where I’ve worked. I’ve sat through every kind of commencement speech from the memorably bad (which gave my family the immortal wisdom “you don’t never know”) to the world famous (I was on stage when Admiral William McRaven gave his now world famous speech at the University of Texas at Austin. I’ve included a link below in case you’ve missed it somehow. There’s also a link to the related book.)
Every one of them is the same, regalia, banners, happy students and families. At the same time each one has it’s own special charm. From McMurry’s small school intimacy to UT Austin’s exuberant fireworks, from Trinity’s more formal pomp and circumstance to UTSA’s versions that share in the San Antonio spirit of Fiesta ending with the campus mariachi ensemble playing us out of the arena. Each one of them is an important ritual in the processes of higher education.
Rituals of completion have their own kind of significance for both individuals and organizations. Many years ago, I had to convince a retiring staff member to let us have a goodbye party for her. She had served the institution well for many years. She had earned this and I said, we should tell you thank you. The party was for her, but it was also important for the organization to recognize her accomplishments and show appreciation. It’s one way we live out our values. It makes those values visible to others. Afterwards, she thanked me for talking her into it, but I thanked her as well for letting us fulfill our responsibility.
Graduation ceremonies fill much the same purpose. They are individual celebrations of success for each student and that student’s friends and families. And they are recognitions of the fundamental purpose of the university – the education through a course of study that is designed to give them their start in the world. There’s a reason we also call graduation commencement. It’s the end that is also a beginning. It’s the celebration of an important achievement that’s just the start. It’s one way the organization recognizes the collective work of the faculty and the staff as well as that of each student.
I’ve written before about Robert Fulgham’s book on the role ritual plays in our lives. In his section about professional organizations, he writes that if you find your professional conference boring, perhaps you are at the wrong conference. I’d like to end by paraphrasing his thinking in this way.
Yes, graduations are long. Yes, the speakers are rarely as funny or inspiring as they want to be and we hope they will be. Yes, it’s hot and stuffy, especially if you are wearing regalia. But every student who crosses that stage has a story all their own. Every family member there is celebrating someone who has achieved something that is still rare. (In the United States, in 2020 37.5% of people above 25 had a college degree. https://www.statista.com/statistics/184260/educational-attainment-in-the-us/) Commencement ceremonies are full of pomp and circumstance both to connect to our history and to signify that this is important, to recognize that each student has accomplished something significant, no matter their GPA. It may be true that no one will notice your absence this year, but the participation of faculty and staff is part of the ritual of completion, of acknowledging the final stage in the process. The ritual is made significant in part by our presence. If you are finding your campus commencements boring and wondering why we still have this ancient ritual, maybe you’re focusing on the wrong thing.
Wishing you all a happy commencement season!