I am about to go to another commencement and I'm not exactly delighted. I guess I should be, because it is a fine academic tradition dedicated to honoring graduates as they leave the halls of ivy and enter the "real world."
But the cap and gown are so hot and unwieldy. No wonder many of the graduates wear T-shirts in the event of a surprise shower, but the gown is just like wearing a thick blanket, which is ghastly in the advent of summer.The hoopla and ritual change so little. At least at my college we insist on doing things the same way we've done them for the past 149 years. That means, of course, reading EVERY name of EVERY graduate, very slowly, being careful to mispronounce the more difficult ones, much to the consternation of relatives present.
And as each name is read, each graduate parades onto the stage to shake hands with the president and receive the diploma. Some of the more outrageous graduates will do so to the accompaniment of whistles and shrieks of admiration from uninhibited friends.
Some will trip over a gown that is too long that becomes doubly dangerous as it loops onto high heels. Some are so interested in the diploma and the crowd that they will barely acknowledge the president, who is making every effort to be personal and appreciative of each graduate.
Commencement speakers are another story. They seem to be chosen either for political purposes of various kinds OR to satisfy current whims of the graduates. As a result, every type of public person ends up on some commencement stage, endeavoring to say something memorable or inspiring.
Our commencement speaker this year is the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Since she has already announced her intention to run for governor, her choice could be said to have obvious political overtones. Her message will undoubtedly have words geared to the media and the ears of the people of the state, while the graduates and their concerns will be secondary.
Boston University recently had commencement exercises commemorating 150 years as an institution with President Bush and President Mitterrand of France gathering together on the stage. President Bush's political message was geared to national defense and had implications for a world stage, with the graduates merely incidental.
It is just as well. When someone tries to give an inspiring address to graduates it usually falls flat. Our last commencement address was given by a prominent businessman who actually gave a prescription for making money in a competitive world. Others invariably read so many quotations and utter so many cliches that most of the audience suffers from terminal boredom.
The graduates themselves prefer addresses that are short, breezy and funny. They wouldn't mind if the address was eliminated altogether, as long as they received their diploma at the end.
The truth is that most people feel just fine about their OWN commencement exercises. One walk across the stage to thunderous applause is small payment for four years of hard work, and accolades and pats on the back are hardly offensive.
It is that murderous exercise year after year for every other Tom, Dick or Harry that causes commencement exercises to seem like repetitious horror shows. For college professors like me, or for anyone anywhere who has a spouse, kids, siblings, relatives, friends or whoever who must make that illustrious walk across the stage, it is just plain terrible.
It is a little easier to take at those institutions that are progressive enough to hold separate convocations where the list of names is shorter and the hoopla less offensive. Mortar boards off to them, wherever they are! And the same to all others who suggest and carry out exercises that are short and to the point. Then we can hurry and get to the parties and the food afterward.