Commencement offers one of the few occasions to celebrate the life of the mind in post-modern America. My father, an engineering professor, says he marches to get his annual quota of ceremony in a life comparatively free of ritual. While this is true, I think the desire to participate runs deeper.
In a culture dominated by anti-intellectuals, academics long for the rare opportunity to feel appreciated. Once a year, we turn on our televisions and radios to hear snippets of the great and the good congratulating graduates for making an investment in their minds.
Those of us who teach don medieval garb and march two by two onto stages across the nation to applaud the achievement of those spread out before us. The speaker inspires them to make good on their efforts – and ours as faculty – to broaden their minds and deepen their thoughts. For a brief moment, the monetary loses out to the meditative.
US undergraduates tend to treat universities like for-profit businesses and conceive of themselves as clients paying for products: first grades, then jobs. In this model, faculty are shop clerks. Students cum Spice Girls tell us what they want, what they “really, really, want,” and we are to provide it in return for their parents’ tuition.
Teaching faculty too often comply. We tell students exactly what they need to do in order to succeed in a course (ie get the all-important A). Students toss majors, minors, and certificates into their academic shopping cart like so much produce in a market. “Give me a pound of economics, a half-gallon of biology, and a punnet of poetry, please!” Then, they hand in a coupon for early graduation (their AP credit) at the cash register. We have one last chance to stop them at the door and make them think about what it all means.
Universities never intended to impart skills. Universities show you the universe. When natural philosophy shattered into credit hours of physics and political science, we lost the essence of the enterprise.
The uniformity of graduation robes help to mask the every-day disparities in experience between the historian and the histologist. We make fun of Harry Potter scenes in Oxbridge colleges. Flapping robes at high table seem charmingly archaic, but they serve a fundamental purpose. The young men and women sitting in rows and struggling to keep their own sleeves out of the soup sense that they are engaged in something worthwhile.
High table is for those accustomed to lofty thoughts. The terror of the undergraduate given a rare opportunity to sit among the dons abates, because she learns that they eat, drink, and dribble like mere mortals while discussing eternal questions once the preserve of priests. The robes temper the tendency to rush on to the next thing and reminds students that thoughtfulness is valuable for its own sake.
Thus, at the end of each academic year, we wear garish gowns, grasp the universal from the particular, and insist that the esoteric sheds light on the eternal. From the dais, we see the mobile phones but hope the graduates will take a moment between tweets to look up at our best selves and seek theirs.