The short history of graduation

Graduation day: a modern ritual indicating one stage of a person’s life moving forth into another.

There comes a point in time when students must return to society after being withdrawn for some time, to regain a status in the world, to gain responsibility, to contribute constructively to the community.

Dating back to the 12th century, the graduation ceremony still prevails today. Many have said they believe the ritual comes from the ceremonies of the scholastic monks.

Legend says the baccalaureate ceremony dates back to a statute dated 1432 at Oxford University that required each bachelor to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of the academic exercise.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Due to the nature of the earliest universities in this country, which were founded primarily to educated ministers, the British practice of a baccalaureate service flourished. Today, the service is usually an interfaith one that celebrates the completion of an undergraduate academic career.”

The commencement is when the graduates are given their diplomas, walk proudly across the platform and turn the tassels on their cap. This tradition is often the highlight of the graduation ceremony.

The encyclopedia explains that the origin of the graduation caps is said to go back to the Celtic people and their priests, the Druids. Within the Celtic groups, only the Druid priests wore capes with hoods to symbolize their superiority in the group. The Druids were the priests who were considered to have superior knowledge of the sciences and nature.

“Later on, this ceremony became part the Middle Ages when meaningful symbols were associated with the conferring of a degree. One of these symbols is the academic hood,” according to the Jostens Web site.

In modern days, however, caps have replaced the oversized and somewhat awkward hoods.

Until about 100 years ago, diplomas were handed out after being written onto sheepskin. This is where the slang “hang your sheepskin on the wall” came from. Because paper-making was difficult, most often documents were written onto the skins of animals.

As for the familiar music everyone can associate so readily with the ceremony, where did it come from?

“Pomp and Circumstance” was composed by Sir Edward Elgar and was first performed on October 19, 1901, in Liverpool, England.

Seeing as how much of American culture comes from British origins, it is also the reason the song “Pomp and Circumstance” has become the calling-card for graduation ceremonies. However, as music often changes with the times, it is not too uncommon to hear another song playing while the ceremony is conducted.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says in 1321, the University of Coimbra declared that all doctors, bachelors and licentiates must wear gowns. Extravagance in apparel was forbidden later on in the 14th century in some colleges and, to create uniformity, it was suggested everyone wear a long gown.

By the time of England’s Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge began using a standard form of academic dress, which was controlled to the tiniest detail by the university.

Not until the late 1800s were colors assigned to signify certain areas of study, but they were only standardized in the United States.

American institutions employ a definite system of dress thanks to Gardner Cotrell Leonard from Albany, N.Y. After designing gowns for his 1887 class at Williams College, he took an interest in the subject and published an article on academic dress in 1893.

Soon after, he was asked to work with an Intercollegiate Commission to form a system of academic apparel.

The system Leonard helped form was based on gown cut, style and fabric; as well as designated colors to represent fields of study.

Another graduation tradition is the class valedictorian, or the person who is considered the student with the highest scholastic standing. They are often determined by tests or by a voting of the student body, or in some other fashion depending on the school’s customs.

The chosen student delivers a speech known as the “valediction” to fellow classmates that most often expresses the ups and downs they have all experienced, and provides youthful insight into a hopeful future, as well the perseverance needed to survive in the real world with their newly acquired education.