- Cullman, Alabama

May 19, 2013

Why Graduation?

By Jan Irons Harris
The Cullman Times

CULLMAN — Have you ever wondered why seniors wear gowns and mortar boards at graduation ceremonies? And, how did we come to have a ceremony to signify the completion of 12 or 13 years of school? I have researched the topic and, at this time, I want to share some interesting facts about graduation with you.

COMMENCEMENT — Commencement means beginning or start, and it is also a ceremony at which diplomas are awarded. The graduation ceremony started in the 12th century. Harvard was the first American college to hold a commencement ceremony in 1642. According to my research, commencement is the modern equivalent of the ancient rite of passage from childhood into adulthood. Arnold van Gennep’s term “Rite of Passage” (1909) indicated that passage rituals had 3 steps: 1. Separation from society, 2. Inculcation – transformation 3. Return to society in the new status. Students come to their commencement ceremony as high school seniors and, at the conclusion of the ceremony, leave as one of approximately 75 percent of Americans who earned a high school diploma.

DIPLOMA – A diploma is a document issued by a school validating that a student has completed a particular course of study. Original diplomas were made of sheepskin. This is where the saying “hang your sheepskin on the wall” originated. Early diplomas were made from paper-thin sheepskin. They were hand-written, and rolled and tied with a ribbon until approximately 100 years ago. When paper-making techniques improved, then parchment was utilized. At the turn of the century diplomas began to be placed in leather binders which made them easier to frame.

THE RING – The first class ring was developed in 1835 for West Point U.S. Academy. In the early 1900s, class rings became popular. First rings were simple; they had a shank with a symbol attached to the bezel of the ring. Then, stones were added with more detailed designs. The history of the ring begins with the Egyptians who wore their seal and signet rings until death, and then they were buried with them placed over their hearts. Today, the class ring symbolizes school pride and diploma achievement.

MUSIC – Pomp and Circumstance was composed by Sir Edward Elgar and first performed in 1901 in Liverpool, England. This music was passed down to us from English universities.

CAP AND GOWN – Academic dress for graduation started in the 12th and 13th centuries when universities began forming. Most medieval scholars had made religious vows and so clerical robes were their main form of dress. To create uniformity, everyone wore a long robe. Legend has it that the gown was important because it covered the scholar’s clothes. No one could observe the socio-economic status of the graduate when wearing the gown. You see, education is the great equalizer. With education, all men and women are equal in terms of social status. High School graduates in the U.S. began wearing the now traditional cap and gown in 1908. 

THE CAP or MORTAR BOARD – Some historians believe the mortar board or cap is square to be like scholars and their books; others say the cap’s purpose was to replicate the quadrangular shape of the English school’s campus.

Regardless of how or why we came to have the graduation ceremony, rituals and artifacts, I truly enjoy graduation. I like new beginnings. I like validations of work completion. My favorite part of graduation is the gown worn during the ceremony. I like the fact that, with education and hard work, one can rise from poverty or any circumstance and become a surgeon, teacher, lawyer or even the president of the United States of America. Yes, education is the great equalizer and education is power. Like our seniors, I will be enjoying a little graduation of my own as I complete my 30th year in the educational arena, and approach my retirement. Together, we will be beginning a new chapter in the story of our lives.