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.