Today is graduation day for my department. The forecast is for glorious weather and campus will soon be a-buzz with hundreds of graduands decked out in York’s ‘unusual’ grey academic gowns and hats. Litres of Pimms will be quaffed and thousands of photographs snapped by proud families. Hats may be thrown in the air in celebration, even.
Amid such a putatively happy scene, it perhaps takes the special kind of pessimism reserved for sociologists (who are typically “not happy campers” in the words of Philip Exler) to offer a critical analysis of proceedings. Nevertheless, I always feel a deep sense of ambivalence on graduation day and this typically sets me off thinking about the meaning of it all. (The sociological imagination unfortunately lacks an ‘off’ button, which is both a blessing and a curse.).
I have experienced graduation ceremonies at three institutions as graduate, helper and observer. Each seemed to me to reveal some facet of the character of the respective universities. Manchester’s bore the stamp of a Victorian origin – large numbers of graduands, processed efficiently with a minimum of fuss. Gowns mainly black – not too showy (although note the PhD gown, see below). Hat not to be worn indoors but (ridiculously) carried in the left hand on entering the main hall, all enforced by a fierce porter (not himself wearing a bowler hat, although that would have been appropriate). Liverpool’s was the most lively, with strong hints of the city’s roots, including the old Protestant/Catholic religious tension. God Save the Queen was played to begin in true imperial style, but in the setting of the glorious Roman Catholic cathedral English restraint and decorum was met with some Irish craic as whooping and hollering broke out. It is York’s ceremony though, of which I have the most experience, which is the most fascinating and perhaps revealing. Although it is entirely secular, it has the distinct air of a low church Anglican service. There is solemnity, choral and organ music and procession. It is a fairly quiet affair, with a long ‘sermon’ to sit through. Making a fuss is – or rather was until recently – generally frowned upon and children are kept quiet or absented. It seems to encapsulate something essential but intangible about York and Englishness (or maybe whiteness).
Anthropologists would no doubt point out that rituals and the rite of passage are ubiquitous in human societies. Sociologists of course look at the significance, not just the meaning of the ritual, and its relationship to power. Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic studies of French higher education suggested that the process of higher education credentialing was a process of consecration, a legitimising of the select group ‘ordained’ to take powerful roles in society, investing them with symbolic – and very slightly mystical – power in the name of the university. Seen this way, the purpose of the religious/military overtones, the special dress and the various ranks of graduate becomes clear. Indeed there are strong parallels between the attire and conduct of a graduation ceremony and the anachronistic medieval trappings of the House of Lords. Viewed through Bourdieu’s lens, the graduation ceremony is nothing less than an investiture into an educational nobility. (“Chance would be a fine thing”, I’m sure many graduates would respond faced with the current graduate labour market.) It is hard to deny that the whole exercise is not a vehicle for the symbolic transfer of cultural capital to the new graduate, who receives their degree certificate, like some sort of sacrament, as the conclusion to the process. All of this takes place under the slightly disinterested gaze of the platform party, bodily representing the form of institutional power: white, male, grey-haired and so on.
Why then, do I take part in this apparent exercise in legitimation of arbitrary power? Why lend any kind of support to something which could just be a screen for the reproduction of inequality through education (or, as Laurie Taylor might have it, an exercise in selling strawberries, champagnes and fancy photo frames)? The answer is that, while the graduation ceremony has some deeply troubling aspects, it has many endearing qualities too. Perhaps above all, as a teacher the graduation ceremony celebrates the value of learning. Here is an achievement, the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and the ability to think about the world in certain ways, which at its best encapsulates the heights of human development. It is fitting that we celebrate this achievement with the respect it deserves, in the company of those family and loved ones who have supported our graduates on their journey of discovery. The ceremony gives a focus and licence to even say those sorts of things, which in ordinary discourse can sound pretentious and overblown. It gives us pause to reflect on how each graduate has matured personally and intellectually, whatever their level of qualification. I can’t help but think, for each of the students I have supervised, of how they were when they entered university and how they are when they leave it. They have invariably grown in many ways and that change seems palpable somehow when they arrive in full academic dress (especially those who have literally grown and are now somewhat taller than me as we pose for photographs!).
I think it is also worth reflecting on the logistics of graduation. It is a very exacting exercise in organisation and administration, since even one mistake in ticketing, printing and sorting students into procession order can be disastrous and ruin the experience for the graduand. Literally thousands of graduands will walk across the stage of the Central Hall this week, without a hitch. That the event happens at all, given how ‘organised’ universities can sometimes seem, is testament to the care my colleagues who work on the ceremony take. In the modern university setting, where commodification proceeds apace, the graduation ceremony might even be seen as an aberration. It surely does not recoup its costs, despite all the talk of ‘maintaining a relationship with alumni’ (i.e. getting them to donate) and the marketing of all the accompanying baubles and trinkets. Tickets are still free at York and a Jamie Targett might wonder why the whole thing can’t be monetised.
So I will, in spite of everything, enjoy today’s events. Maintaining a strong sense of the absurd helps. There is a perhaps an element of pantomime in graduation, at its best – we are all dressed up in silly outfits, laughing at the same old jokes in the Chancellor’s speech and so on. I do particularly enjoy dressing up in my very splendid Manchester PhD gown (purple and burgundy with a gold trim, since you ask) and swanning around looking slightly ridiculous. (I’m not even in the premier league of academic gowns – check out the Penn State and University of Greenwich offerings for PhD, for instance). If we can celebrate the achievements of our graduates with all seriousness, and laugh at ourselves and our institutions at the same time, then I think we can continue to make graduation work.