I was sitting in the auditorium waiting for my son’s high school graduation ceremony to start and wondering whether it would be bad form to keep writing this blog as they handed out the diplomas to the first half of the alphabet. I decided it was okay and was rewarded by having my computer crash and my flashdrive split into three pieces. Then I started taking notes on paper and my pen ran out. Apparently higher powers had decided that it was indeed bad form to write a blog about graduation during the actual ceremony itself.
So you won’t read all about how the superintendent of schools repeatedly mispronounced words and the student body that had to pass a mandatory algebra test to graduate managed to fail at basic counting and ran out of chairs before the last row of graduates was seated.
Instead, it’s all about the cap and gown, the traditional graduation attire that looks awful on everyone. Why do we force graduates to wear them? If it’s just to make everyone look uniform, we could have students construct robes out of matching grocery bags and make newspaper pirate hats. This would show the world that our schools are both thrifty and environmentally friendly as graduates gleefully tossed their hats into recycling bins suspended from the ceiling. But instead we make them pay for polyester muumuus and big square hats that were apparently designed to be worn on something other than a human head. WHY?
I had heard that the graduation gown hearkens back to the medieval days when scholars dressed in many layers of heavy fabric to keep warm in the vast unheated college halls. I can easily believe this because I visited a college at Cambridge that was so old it predated the invention of the chimney. But what’s with the goofy impossible hats? Are the school administrators just trying to have a last laugh at students’ expense before they shove them out the door?
My research has yet to produce a satisfactory answer on the “cap” question. The strange hat, commonly referred to as a “mortarboard” in the US (because of its similarity to the device bricklayers use to hold mortar) may date back to 15th Century Italy. It bears some resemblance to caps worn by Italian nobles at a time when Italian culture began to profoundly influence the rest of Europe. But the Italians were also wearing pretty goofy shoes at that time and we don’t force our graduates to wear those. So why the headwear? Believe it or not, it all seems to be in a quest for dignity. In the 1800s, some European universities that were fairly new wanted to establish customs to give dignity to ceremonies such as graduations and to make the school look venerated and prestigious. So by resurrecting the old medieval scholars’ gown and an ancient type of cap, they made it look as if their students had dressed this way for hundreds of years.
And I will agree that there is a certain dignity in seeing an entire student body wearing the same uniform garment. But I can’t say much for the dignity of a cap that pokes down onto the wearer’s face if worn correctly and looks like a duck beak if worn further back on the graduate’s head.
So I vote for the paper pirate hats when my daughter graduates. I wonder if the superintendent will mind?