On Ceremony and Ritual

We often downplay the importance of ceremony and ritual in university life. But, having just come to the end of a graduation week with eleven graduation ceremonies in total, I can report that ceremony is alive and kicking. There are the special (and usually very hot and heavy) robes, the procession in academic dress, the mace, the special music (Warwick’s anthem was specially composed for the university by Michael Nyman), the presentation of the honorary graduate, and so on.

Graduation ceremonies vary quite substantially around the world but they tend to have this same underlying diagram. Sometimes they are sprinkled with Latin or Greek, sometimes they are bilingual. Sometimes the gowns are colourful, sometimes a puritanical black (but with gold edgings.) Sometimes there are beadles, sometimes just the mace bearer. Sometimes local dignitaries join the procession, adorned with chains of office, sometimes not. Sometimes the procession wends its way through the town, sometimes it covers only a short distance. Sometimes the ceremony lasts for hours, sometimes not.

But they are hardly the only academic ritual that, in classic anthropological terms, marks a transformation from one state of being to another. Think only of the initiation into fraternity and sorority houses.  Or think of the PhD viva. Reduced to a rather workaday exchange in the UK, in other countries it is marked publicly. I immediately cast my mind forward to the special rooms used in France to examine the candidate, with their trial-like layout and demeanour. Or the very formal occasions found in many Scandinavian countries: I still remember the tails and dress shoes I had to wear at a Finnish viva (as well as the depth of the snowfall over the next night). Then there are all the traditions that have sprung up which are institution-specific. Think only of the highlight of Princeton’s reunion weekend, the P-Rade.

But not all academic rituals and ceremonies simply mark transformations (or the relics of sumptuary laws.) There are also all of the various forms of academic distinction which are often inherently spatial. Many Senate and Council rooms are especially designed to indicate the relative importance of the participants. Examinations are often ritualised, none more so than at Oxford and Cambridge where undergraduates still have to wear gowns (only a short while back Oxford students voted to keep this tradition). There are moments of academic politesse too. So when I first went to Oxford as a Head of Division, not so long ago, we still wore academic dress to a number of meetings and stood up when the Vice-Chancellor came in

Anthropologists will tell you that ceremony and ritual binds communities together in all manner of ways. How true that is. And what is fascinating is that, at a time when you might think that many would want to row back from this mode of justification of the world, the demand seems to be the other way.  In the UK, for example, an interesting phenomenon is that graduation ceremonies seem to have become more popular over time, not less. I think that this is probably because of the increasing role of parents in undergraduate life but no doubt there are many other explanations too.

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