My facebook timeline has recently been filled with pictures of young friend’s graduation pictures and even those of some of my now ex-students. Other young academic facebook friends speak nostalgically of their’s or playfully of the batman/potteresque joys of the gown. Looking at the procession of my Institution’s recent Graduation Ceremony and the rump of us who attend but decline to process it seems many academics have already hit the beach. So I attend, but with considerable reservations.
Some of my students have started to question the costs and some missed it much as they missed much of the other aspects of their education. My lack of educational application occurred in my O and A level (2 poor sciences) years so a false start aimed at primary teaching lead to the Civil Service, ‘night school’ (Law and Politics A levels) and eventually the Open University.
My graduation ‘ceremony’ was to take a pair of scissors and cut my name and degree result out of The Guardian and pin it to my kitchen corkboard (this before Pinterest and Tumblr). I wrote this up; and to its credit Sesame - the OUs newspaper - published it. I can find no trace of either piece of paper. The article provoked some comment and I’m aware that 23 years later what I have to say may still not be popular.
So why did I not attend my BA graduation or two further MA ceremonies? And what happened when I weakened and attended my PhD one?
Like my students I’ve done my research on Google. Typing in ‘Why graduation ceremonies?’ brought up the Wikipedia entry on ‘Graduation’ first (unusually thin) then nine entries for the graduation ceremony webpages of nine UK Universities (well done the UCL Search Engine Optimisers). The last entry for the page was a news item about a US college obliged by ACLU action to stop holding graduation in a local church.
Where the US objection might be to the lack of separation between Church and State my objection is to both Church and State. The ceremonies may derive from such ongoing medieval traditions but they are not a harmless aping of such pageantry. Such aping is less risible in our medieval institutions. But in all, the decoration masks the efficient parts - the maintenance of hierarchy, the acceptance of authority and the raising of cash.
I finally succumbed to my wife’s pressure to receive my PhD. It went badly wrong. I got the right scarlet robe and floppy hat but was allocated the wrong place high up in the body of the Wembley Conference Centre amongst undergraduate students. The other PhD recipient was on stage and first up. I made my way down to the line with difficulty and, after a whispered consultation, was slipped in a bit earlier but still amongst the undergrads. I ignored the instruction to essay a bow to the Chancellor; not out of anger but principle.
Middlesex Uni gave me an apology and the cost of my tickets and gown hire.
These ideological and principled concerns also lead me to oppose honorary degrees though my father has several! But we’ll save that for another time.