A blog by Barry Edelson

Great Expectations

Or, Why Does Every Graduation Ceremony
Look Exactly Like Every Other?

There is no spectacle more contradictory to the cherished American creed of individualism than the American graduation ceremony. We send all of our girls and boys to high school and the most fortunate to college. We encourage them to think for themselves and to chart their own course. We enforce rules that reward creativity and punish imitation. And at the end of their educational travails we mark the occasion by dressing them in uniform monochrome costumes from another era and lining them up in perfect rows like some sort of children's army. An observer from another species (a penguin, say) might well wonder how parents are able to find their own offpspring amidst the throng of identically clad graduates at the conclusion of this peculiar ritual.

The commencement which prompted these musings was at Dartmouth College on June 6. A graduation presents a beautiful tableau, to be sure. The college green was bathed in sunlight and the graduates were resplendent in their black caps and gowns (rather too resplendent for the suddenly scorching weather, but lovely nonetheless). The assembled guests, largely parents and grandparents who over the last four years had footed the bill for tuition and room and board and a thousand sundry necessities, glowed with fulfillment and goodwill. The addresses by the adults were appropriately sage and inspiring, and those by the students alternately nostalgic and hopeful.

A human observer of an optimistic persuation might describe this ritual as a perfect manifestation of e pluribus unum: Out of the untidy horde of rebels, geeks, jocks and misfits which forms the typical class of high school or college seniors, there is unity — or, failing that, at least a symbolic representation of unity. But that, of course, leads to an obvious question: How is it that every graduation ceremony in every institution of secondary or higher education in the United States bears such an uncanny resemblance to every other, even though there is no guiding authority which prescribes how such exercises are to be conducted? And, a more important question, why do we do it?

The cultural underpinnings of this ritual must be powerful indeed for it to be practiced with so little variation over such a wide geographic area and such a long period of time. Consider the cap and gown: It has been a very long time since the traditional scholar's garb has actually been worn by students or professors for any occasion other than graduation. And yet, every school in America has unquestioningly adopted this archaic outfit as an indispensable emblem of educational attainment. Most people attending a graduation ceremony at which the graduates did not wear the cap and gown would feel the rite of passage incomplete. Indeed, more than a few in the Dartmouth audience felt cheated merely by the absence of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance", the playing of which is apparently not part of the Dartmouth tradition. In many minds these symbols are clearly more than just bits and pieces of an old ritual. They have become — this being the U.S.A. — an entitlement.

But what, exactly, do these rituals and traditions entitle one to? If you listened closely to the proceedings, you could very well conclude that they entitle one to a lifetime of ceaseless toil and precious little time to enjoy the fruits of it. For example, one of those receiving an honorary degree from Dartmouth this year was an alumnus of the college who went on to have a long career in finance, which included a stint as chief executive officer of a rather large bank. In his introduction, the president of the college said that the honoree, now retired, had described his own career as (I am paraphrasing slightly) a series of missed of opportunities to say no. This rare and honest admission that life could have been otherwise, by a person who by any objective standard could be held up as a model of personal achievement — why else was he being honored on this day? — stood in dramatic opposition to the morning's numerous reminders to the graduates that the rewards of a good life were theirs for the taking, if only they worked hard enough. There was no doubt whatsoever about which path they were expected to take.

And We Wish This Upon Our Children?

We would not expect anyone to burst the bubble on such a celebratory occasion by reminding us that the mythical life of "the successful" in modern society is a cliché of dysfunction. If we take the graduation speakers at their word, accepting the premise that the ultimate product of a good education is an individual who reaches the pinnacle of his or her chosen profession no matter the cost in personal sacrifice, then the life we are wishing upon our fledglings is one likely to be replete with sleep deprivation, constant stress, poor diet, ill health, missed family celebrations and divorce. A heavy price, to be sure, for the hope of financial security and some words of appreciation upon retirement. Why would we wish this upon our children?

During the weekend of Dartmouth's graduation I happened to be reading Jeffrey Toobin's book, "The Nine", about the Supreme Court. He depicts Sandra Day O'Connor as just the sort of workaholic that our educational institutions strive to produce. Her early married life is described as a whirlwind of work, law, politics, marriage, socializing and children. She seems a living refutation of the popular notion that contemporary women must "make choices" between careers and families. No choices for this ex-justice, thank you very much. She insisted that her female law clerks maintain her exhausting pace and exhorted them to follow her model of "having it all". But, like an uncommonly healthy person who thinks that anyone who goes to the doctor is a slacker, many successful people like O'Connor fail to notice that not everyone has the stamina of a steam engine, or thinks that living at the speed of light is everyone's idea of a fulfilling existence. It is also usually bad for one's mental and physical health. (On the other hand, some are no doubt aware that their own superior persistence provides a competitive advantage.)

The sameness of commencement exercises and the redundancy of the delivered messages demonstrate that the desire for society's forward motion is deeply ingrained in our culture. While the familiarity of the ritual may be comforting and bind us as a people, its net effect is to perpetuate a system of government and commerce that depends upon large numbers of young people channeling their personal ambitions for the greater glory of the nation. If we stopped to think about it, that may be precisely what we want. We may not mind that we are training our students to be democracy's foot soldiers and capitalism's cannon fodder. How else are we to move the country from Point A to Point B, wherever that may be? The historical alternatives are hardly to be desired. But we cannot help but notice a stunning irony: that the rugged and unending path upon which most of these graduates are today embarking stands in stark contrast to a leisurely life of contemplation and reflection, which is the soul and essence of the university to whose tutelage and care we so recently entrusted them.

June 13, 2008

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