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Graduation’s Pomp Goes On, No Matter the Circumstance

Recycled robes, processional marches, silver pens from Tiffany: It is graduation season in America. May brings a nationwide festival of youth, with roots stretching back to before the foundation of the republic, and though many college commencements this month have taken place under police surveillance amid student outcry, the ceremonies have gone on.

There are more than three centuries of precedents for graduation rituals — for its dress, for its speeches, and for its disturbances. If commencement is ripe for contestation (the backs turned on the speaker, the kaffiyeh replacing the pointed sash), that’s because it’s one of the very last venues in which Americans show a commitment to how we do things, and not just what we say and record. I am always a little surprised that universities have hung onto these habits, almost uniquely longstanding. This is a country where very little endures. You can arrive at the Met Gala half-naked. You can play Bach or Beyoncé at a funeral. But graduation still has rules.

The students graduating from four-year colleges and universities this month began their studies, for the most part, in Pandemic Year Zero. They missed, in 2020, the walk across the football field or the auditorium stage to collect their high school diploma, and as the war in Gaza continues to inflame campuses some are facing disarray again. Columbia University, which called in the New York Police Department to oust pro-Palestinian student demonstrators, broke its universitywide commencement into smaller chunks. Emory University moved its ceremonies off campus.

None has been outright canceled, though. It takes a lot to cancel a graduation. At Harvard, where hundreds of students walked out of this year’s main ceremony, outbreaks of smallpox meant no commencement in 1752, 1757 (the Seven Years’ War didn’t help that year), and 1764. Revolutionary hostilities canceled the commencements of 1774-78 and 1780, but Harvard would not miss a commencement again until 2020. The ceremony took place through the Civil War and two world wars, and it went ahead in 1970, after National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State who were protesting the war in Vietnam. (Demonstrations did cancel graduation at Boston University, Hunter College and other schools; Kent State’s was scaled down.) In Harvard Yard that June, graduates protested the war by refusing to don cap and gown, or else by wearing white armbands over their robes. Local demonstrators with a bullhorn occupied the dais to demand low-income housing in Cambridge. Students heard dueling orations that denounced the Nixon administration and Students for a Democratic Society.

Today not even marriage — your wedding can be whatever you want! I read it in Cosmo — has the codified form of graduation, with its maces and chains, its rented regalia, the charted gestures and homilies. The gowns are an English import, though they date back to the emergence of the university in Paris and Bologna in the Middle Ages, where the students, newly entered into the ministry, wore dark robes both to keep warm and to abjure fashion.

The mortarboard cap is younger, probably an adaptation of the Italian biretta that priests still wear, and moving the tassel is younger still: until the mid-20th century no one cared on which side it dangled. Students worry about these things, or see value in rumbling them, because here appearance and significance — pomp and circumstance, if you prefer — are not antonyms. The whole point is that each needs the other.

Today there is an address, probably platitudinous, in which a politician or pop star delivers some variation of the liberal democratic gospel. In colonial America, your graduation ceremony might also have had a distinguished guest — in 1783, while the new Congress of the Confederation was sitting in Princeton, N.J., General Washington showed up at the commencement of what was then still called the College of New Jersey.

But the main speakers of an 18th-century commencement were the graduates themselves. Before receiving their degrees they would face off in disputations: prepared debates on religious, philosophical and scientific matters, staged for the professoriate and the general public. At Brown in 1773, the topic was free will and the debate was in Latin.

These early graduations were public festivals, some of the biggest of the year, and things could get rowdy. A company ledger in Providence, R.I., records an 8-shilling charge for “mending Pews broke Commt Day” in the hall where Brown held that 1773 commencement, plus a second invoice for repairing shattered windows. (The windows were broken again in 1774.)

“Whatever is real is so unlimited and unshaped that we have to summarize it,” the painter Gerhard Richter once said. “The more dramatic events are, the more important the form. That is why people marry in a church and why we need a priest for a funeral.” This is not about tradition itself; traditions you can take or leave. What I care about is form, and the images, objects, styles and gestures that elevate biological and technological existence into something we once called society. Some things, some causes, are worth dressing up for.

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