21 May, 2010

A tradition that should be abandoned

George Weigel appears to have only recently noticed that university commencements have turned into screaming matches:

When did it become socially acceptable for adults to shriek like banshees when their graduate’s name is announced? …

The award of a degree ought to mark a point of passage into adulthood. Parents, siblings, and friends who understand that might want to stop acting like berserk adolescents on these occasions.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that most people's definition of adulthood is closer to what I, and probably Mr. Weigel, would term adolescence. I've grumbled about this before.

By now, it is de rigueur to endure such screaming matches. I can't remember the last time I was at a high school or university commencement that lacked screaming fans, and I've attended at least one commencement every year since 2005. I also can't remember the last time that I was at a high school or university commencement that administrators didn't plead futilely with the mob not to scream, in a sorry show of disregarding reality.

Sure, a few parents/relatives/friends/whatever might respect the request at the beginning, but that's more or less unfair to students whose family names lie near the beginning of the alphabet: sooner or later, some fools will scream their graduate's name at the top of their lungs, and then it becomes a contest to see who can scream the loudest. Administrators claim that this slows down graduation, but I've never noticed that happen: the designated reader keeps reading, and the none too weak sound system manages to make the next graduate's name audible.

In all fairness to the berserkers, whose side I am not on no matter how the rest of this reads, most graduations today are too long to sit in silence through a recitation of the name of each individual receiving a bachelor's degree. My own institution just graduated around 1,600 students, and we had to sit through every last one of those names for nearly two hours on a day that combined the wicked triumvirate that rules southern Mississippi weather: bright sun, heat, and humidity. A little bit of screaming relieves the tedium—and if a university boasts that it educates a disproportionate number of first-generation college students, then it can't complain when their families act like the child is a first-generation college graduate. In an age when churches are falling over themselves to abandon notions of dignity and reverence, why should universities, whose professorial robes are relics of clerical vestments, imagine themselves immune to the general trend? They're lucky to have anyone attend at all.

If you ask me—and even if you don't—the podium walk for any and every degree is an outdated tradition that ought to be abandoned. NC State (my PhD-granting institution) has the right idea. At least, they did in May 2005: only students receiving graduate degrees walked the podium at the main ceremony. Students earning a bachelor's degree were then asked to stand, were given a sort of general acknowledgment by the <fill in your favorite title for a university leader here: president, chancellor, etc.>—something akin to general absolution before a battle—then sat back down. Done. They walked a different podium at departmental ceremonies held across the campus, which was much more informal (at least in the math department). It was the best damn commencement I've attended in my life, not in the least because it was the shortest commencement I've attended in my life.

IMNSHO, NC State has the right idea, and all those university administrators trying to hustle thousands of graduates across a podium in a short period of time, to satisfy their nostalgia for a tradition that, in their day, likely didn't involve nearly so many students, let alone first-generation students, are just as wacked in their pointy heads as the person at my institution who thought it would be a grand idea to celebrate its centennial anniversary by have several hundred faculty sit for three hours in southern Mississippi's midday sun in heavy black robes. If you ask me—and even if you don't—that was more an attempt to resolve budget difficulties by terminating as many faculty as they could without actually firing anyone. (Pun intended.) Their plan was thwarted only by the fact that about half the faculty got up and left to take a breather in the shade—some never to return to the sun.

As you can guess, I stayed out of the shade, and got a good baking. Yes, I'm still sore, especially since the person who made the decision to bake the faculty was, in all likelihood, sitting in the shade of a canopy that protected administrators and honorable guests from the consequences of that decision.

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