So, we’re in graduation season again. Mine’s this weekend, though I’m not going. When you haven’t been in residence since 2007, fond farewells and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” are all fairly irrelevant. Plus, 850 miles (from St. Paul to Ithaca) is a long way to drag two small boys for a ceremony in which they are guaranteed not to behave themselves.
Still, the occasion has gotten me in a bit of a sentimental mood, and I’ve been thinking about graduations. They’re mostly very silly these days, but in principle I do think commencement ceremonies serve a purpose. It is appropriate to celebrate the completion of a period of formation (which is what education ought to be), while looking ahead to the next phase in life. What would it take, though, to make a graduation ceremony worthwhile?
My husband and I put our heads together and came up with a list. Feel free to add your own, or quibble with ours.
1) There should be live music. Not Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” please. That’s just so corny.
2) The graduates may be congratulated on successfully completing an important phase of life. No one should imply, however, that finishing school is any kind of stunning achievement.
3) The speaker should be a scholarly figure. No movie stars, no rock stars, and absolutely no politicians. The speech should have scholarly content without being overly technical – something along the lines of an evening lecture. It would be nice to have some kind of message about education, its place in society, its role in a well-lived life etc.
4) There should be no fawning over the graduates. (This is one of many reasons for keeping the politicians far, far away.) They should be reminded of the serious responsibilities of adult life, and told that much is expected where much has been given. I feel, however, that graduation is not the occasion for berating graduates for their failures and collective shortcomings. That will only leave them feeling angry and demoralized, and in any case, if a graduating class is collectively ill-prepared for the challenges of the world they face, I’m inclined to think that more the fault of their elders than of the graduates themselves.
5) No to honorary degrees, valedictory speeches, and “Oh Great Deity of Your Choice” prayers. Yes to robes and hat-throwing. We all long for a big hooray at the end of a graduation. I think that’s healthy.