My phobia

I attended a graduation last week, and submitted to my usual ritual of explaining, to everyone who asked, why I sat in the stalls in mufti rather than on the dais in academic regalia.

Some of my colleagues inform me that they hate graduations, either because they are bored by them, or because they hate ceremony or ceremonies or both. That isn’t my problem. I don’t mind ceremonies, I believe in graduations, and I think it’s important for academics to attend. As a colleague said years ago, how could we consider putting the students through all those hoops for three years, and then tell them at the end that we’re not interested that they’ve finished? After the ceremony, it’s fun mingling with the students, meeting their parents, reminiscing, and discussing their future plans.

I especially liked the graduation ceremonies they held at a university in Hungary where I worked. They were serious and dignified affairs; the national anthem was played, and Gaudeamus Igitur too; well-crafted speeches were delivered, and the students filed up to collect their testamurs.

But there were no gowns or mortarboards. The academics did not arrive in a procession, nor sit on the stage in profusion of presposterous hats like extras in a Pied Piper pantomime; they occupied the front rows of the auditorium — present, visible, and respectful, but not regaled, elevated or demanding the spotlight.

I wish we could do it that way, too. My dislike of robes is probably mostly visceral. Traditions are fun when they’re followed by the same people who invested them with meaning, but tradition for tradition’s sake betokens conservatism and conformity. I oppose school uniforms (and proudly attended a high school that had none), and I avoid costume parties: academic regalia has elements of both. As for the business of sitting on the platform, it just strikes me as irrational and inegalitarian. In the modern world, stages are for people who are actually doing something interesting, not to display important personages.

Unfortunately my aversion to robes, hoods and processions is a lonely one. If you don’t see me leading a mass revolt any time soon, it’s only for lack of followers. Not only is no one else fired up about it, nearly everyone I’ve sought moral support from over the years seems to think it perfectly reasonable to populate the stage with academics in regalia. Some insist that traditional rituals lend life and colour to our otherwise dull lives; but most just feel they’re complying with expectations. They students and their families like it, they argue. In some cases they have cynical marketing motives in mind; in others, they just want the graduands to have a memorable day, and they believe that seeing their teachers in robes makes it more memorable for them. The latter position is one you dissent from at your peril: how snobbish to dismiss the tastes of students and their parents as kitcsh and naive!

Fot the time being, I’ll go on granting a respectful ear to the tradition argument and the consumer sovereignty argument. I won’t condemn you for gowning up and joining the procession. But if you’re the type of person who keeps Groves Classification of Academic Dress on the bedside table, you and I will probably never be soul mates.

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John Quiggin
John Quiggin
14 years ago

As a research fellow, I don’t go to graduations much (only when one of my PhD students is up), but I fully approve of the tradition, and regard myself as one of “the same people who invested them with meaning”, that is, a scholar. It’s true that there is a fair bit of hypocrisy in those who maintain the traditional fittings while seeking to turn the university into a for-profit business, but hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

14 years ago

One of the interesting things about those ceremonies is how much the overseas students like them (sometimes they even fly in their parents). Fortunately for me, most of the parents seem to like looking at older males, as they obviously appear more university-like and official, so if you arn’t one of them its a good excuse not to go (and, at least for me, thanks to micromanagement, another good excuse is that it isn’t on our workload model). That’s another reason to wear the robes — the places where many of our (and I assume yours) OS students come from place a fair bit more importance on formality than Australians.

Nicholas Gruen
14 years ago


I’m with you.

I went to considerable trouble not to have my various degrees conferred to avoid the nonsense. I try to affect moments of doubt. I certainly don’t feel particularly self righteous about it, because I can see the other side. But empty pomposity isn’t for me I’m afraid. (Well I have learned to do it tolerably well and occasionally with some flair when it seems called for but I do laugh about it with similarly inclined people – like my wife – after the event. I don’t like business class for similar reasons. But of course it has its compensations – not so much the luxury which can be fun especially on international flights – but the networking which is very personally valuable.)