Ceremony and tradition
Why do we have commencement and convocation ceremonies? What ultimate purpose do they serve and what role does tradition play in realizing that purpose?
In 2014, former University Marshal and professor of philosophy Dr. Ronald Moore addressed these questions in an inspirational presentation to the Northwest Regional Meeting of the National Association of Commencement Officers on the campus of the University of Washington.
Dr. Moore stepped down as University Marshal in 2015, after 17 years of service in that role.
The University Marshal is the official bearer of the mace, which symbolizes the governing power of the university, and the master of ceremonies at the University’s commencement and freshman convocation ceremonies. The University Marshal is the first to welcome our incoming students at the freshman convocation and, four years later, it is his voice that announces the ceremonial conclusion of their undergraduate experience when he declares the “Commencement Exercises of the University of Washington are now closed.”
The punctuation points of experience
Dr. Moore began his address by noting that he not only likes commencement ceremonies, he has serious philosophical reasons for enjoying the occasion. He stressed the value of “punctuation” points in life and cited John Dewey’s view that “value most readily accrues to experience when we articulate it into episodes with beginnings, middles, and end.” The meaningfulness of an experience is necessarily bound up in this sense of form and in the arrival at an end point.
Commencement exercises and freshman convocations serve as the punctuation points of academic experience, and as such they contribute in profound ways to the meaning of that experience.
At the University of Washington commencement ceremony, graduates once again experience the themes that were introduced at their freshman convocation – the academic regalia, the procession of the gowned faculty, the music, the mace and the four Ionic columns that symbolize the early beginnings of the university in 1861. The University Marshal delivers the first official University greeting to the incoming students at convocation and places the “period” on their undergraduate life when he announces,four years later, the close of the commencement exercises, picks up the mace and leads the recession.
Tying the past to the present and future
Dr. Moore also talked about the place of tradition in academic ceremonies. Tradition, he said, is, of its very nature, something that is acquired over time. He offered an example from his own life. Years ago, after one Christmas, he took down the tree and decided to keep the trunk, thinking that it was good wood and could be burned in the fireplace the following year. Over time this became a tradition – the previous year’s tree became the yule log for the following Christmas.
Traditions endure because they have a strong basis of support built into the institution that sustains them. In all cultures, some reflective, repeated gestures are taken to be emblematic of those culture’s values. Genuflections, the erection of totem poles, tattoos, and various funerary ceremonies are examples of this practice.
Rituals and tradition have an important place in expressing the values of a group. The colorful gowns worn at commencement and freshman convocation, and the four Ionic columns that grace the stage at both ceremonies, are a means by which we remind ourselves of the ties that bind the present to the past, the graduates of the University of Washington with the scholars of ancient times.
Dr. Moore noted that tradition connects us not only to our past, but to our future as well. In affirming and understanding where we have come from, we are in a position to see where we might go. Students who enter a university are almost always bystanders, people on the side of a river, looking at the flow of ideas, inventions, musical creations, and so on, that flow past. And they begin university life by being good, dutiful observers. In the course of their education with us, we try to get them to jump in – to get wet, try out their own ideas, be part of the flow of ideas that makes a civilization what it is. And sometimes we succeed. Tradition is the name for that effort. It is the stubborn resolve to keep on trying to sustain good ideas and to acknowledge them when they come and to make them our best beacon of progress, whatever the win-loss record may be of our football team.
The mace and medieval gowns we wear at academic ceremonies are symbolic reminders of the University’s special way of uniting where we are now with what has brought us here. The great poet T.S. Eliot put the point this way: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
Every entering freshman class, said Dr. Moore, joins the grand collation of ideas that unites present-day students with the historical procession of all the various disciplines in this great University and makes these students part of their ongoing development. Every senior class needs to take a break from their other busy activities and reflect on what has happened over their four or five years at the University in affirming what the old thinkers knew. And also what they didn’t know.
The mission of a university
Dr. Moore closed his talk by explaining what he believes is the mission of a university: to gather and preserve, as Matthew Arnold put it, “the best that has been thought and said.” But as we undertake to gather and preserve the best ideas mankind has hit upon it is not to present them as sterile exhibits in some stuffy museum of lofty thoughts. It is instead to make these ideas a solid foundation from which new ideas can spring. The mace, the music, the gowns, and all these other festive ritual ingredients are simply symbolic reminders of the University’s special way of uniting where we are now with what has brought us here, so that we can get a good fix on where we may be going.