Last spring spent about four hours of a Monday night at a college graduation. My wife was being awarded her degree in elementary education, and she was joined by (according to the college president) 995 other undergraduates. Graduates were welcomed, inducted, charged, presented, and awarded, in that order. The night was long; speeches repeated, processionals and recessionals slogged, and of course, each of the 995 students were called, conferred, and congratulated individually.
It was a ceremony clearly not tailored to the entertainment generation or the babies of endless social media connectivity. Neither was it the du jour of those “radicals,” found so often on college campuses, who detest tradition and protest uniformity. Students marched in step behind large banners, signifying their membership in one of the university’s schools. Everyone wore the same traditional black gown and cap. Songs older than many US states were sung. It was, in many ways, a kind of religious ceremony, in which tradition, institution, and (academic) success made up the liturgy.
I realized at one point that for all the endless intellectual coddling and culture policing that characterizes the contemporary American university, a bachelor’s degree culminates in an event that defies such self-expressive autonomy. Graduation invites students, faculty, family and friends to believe that they are participating in something greater than themselves, to find satisfaction and joy in the idea that what they have achieved has been achieved before and will be achieved again. Yes, graduates have their names called, and yes, graduates receive their own degrees. But the entire ethos of the ceremony is one that says: “This is not ultimately about you.”
This is the opposite, of course, of what many undergraduates learn in the college classroom. We hear almost daily updates on an American university culture which at every turn empowers freshmen and sophomores to authenticate themselves through protest, rather than sit and learn about an imperfect world at the feet of imperfect people. Much of young adult life is what Alan Jacobs calls the “trade-in society,” a life of loose connection and easy escape from situations that become difficult. If institutions become ornery, if they cease to align up perfectly with my individual desires and goals, then the solution is to either give up on the institution or else demand that it change.
Nihilism in higher education has been rampant for some time. But if what I saw Monday night was an indication, it looks like it has mostly failed to leave its imprint on graduation. Presidents and executive administrators sat on the stage, above the floor of graduates; no one protested this obvious hierarchy. I didn’t see any letters to the editor in the following days demanding that the school change its individualism-stifling policy on the robe and cap. Nary a thought was given to whether the school fight song, written in 1892, might have been penned by someone with questionable social or political opinion. In other words, there seems to be no pressing need to make commencement in our sociopolitical image. The ritual is allowed to be ritual.
Why is this? Why, among all the college unrest and university politics in our culture today, is there no national movement to “democratize” commencement? Why is there no formidable backlash to its rigidity and solemnity?
Perhaps one answer is that graduation is one of the few moments remaining in our culture where achievement needs tradition. What a conferring of degrees means is dependent on what, or who, is conferring them. This is, after all, the difference between a college education and a few bucks paid to a diploma mill at a PO box. Anyone can write anything on a piece of paper. But the bigness—we might even say transcendence—of the commencement ceremony befits a time where graduates are declared matriculated by those with the (trigger warning) power to say so.
A commencement invites students to become not just graduates, but alumni. That’s why so much of the chancellor’s speech on Monday was given to exulting in the university’s history and prestige. Students aren’t just receiving degrees; they’re receiving membership, a form of covenant (however informal) that ties them to a specific place and a specific body. Implicit in the commencement is the idea that people need to belong, and that belonging to something greater than and outside oneself is not opposed to individual achievement and success.
Unfortunately, from August to April, much of college life teaches the opposite. From radical deconstructionism in the humanities, to rank scientism in mathematics and biology, to the campus hook up culture—all of these coalesce into a living liturgy of lonely autonomy and hopeless self-authentication.
Is the unraveling of the American campus really a surprise? I can’t see how it is. If everything in the classroom and commons area screams that transcendence and God are nothing but ciphers for the powerful, might one eventually want to apply the rules learned about home, country, and religion to the college itself? Why be oppressed? Higher education was comfortable directing this energy toward the general culture for decades; the only problem now is that the barrels are turned the wrong way. If Lady Thatcher was right that running out of other people’s money was the trouble with socialism, you might say the problem with nihilism in education is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s safe spaces.
So the drama of higher education continues. In the coming years we will see just how strong an institution it is, as it tries to fend off the threats of digitalization, debt, and decay. It very well could be that the internet age was created for such a time as this, to rescue the university from itself and provide a generation with the knowledge and intellectual formation that a coddling college culture has defaulted on. In many ways it would be, as Ross Douthat has noted, a punishment that fits academia’s crime.
Whatever the future holds, let’s hold off on tampering too much with commencement. It may be a bit tedious and self-congratulating. But it’s also a spark of meaning and permanence and truth in the cavernous culture of higher ed.