Dissecting graduation’s many rituals
April 29, 2019
A new class of Illinois seniors will soon be congregating at Memorial Stadium to participate in commencement, a celebration of their collegiate achievements. However, the ceremony will look, sound and function almost identically to every other college graduation in the country. Graduation ceremonies are inundated with rituals that reach back centuries, yet they are so prevalent today that even primary and secondary education have adopted them. Baked into American education like little else, many of the recurring themes of graduation are backed by an intricate history.
Cap and gown
The ceremonial garb of college students may appear arbitrary, but similar attire has been worn by centuries of students and has roots in the beginnings of western academia itself. Around the 12th century, the first European universities formed out of religious orders, according to the American Council on Education, and dress codes were established around the same time. For centuries, scholars took on the clothing of clerics by wearing long robes and hoods, signifiers of rank as well as possible aids in keeping warm. Although today’s students only don the cap and gown once to celebrate the end of college, past academics likely wore this clothing at all times while studying, a practice that persisted through the early 20th century.
The unusual cap, formally named a mortarboard, also seems to have medieval religious origins. Some historians believe it is derived from the biretta, a smaller, also square-shaped hat worn by Catholic clergy for the past several centuries.
American universities largely copied the traditions of Europe. After identifying wide variation in the gown conventions of different colleges, academics met at Columbia University in 1895 to draw up a standardized dress code. The Intercollegiate Code on Academic Costume was subsequently established, drawing heavily on Columbia’s own gown design and applying to all of American higher education.
The code has been revised several times since but still maintains strict standards on gown size, length, cut and color. Each piece of clothing and accessory on display at next week’s commencement ceremony will be dictated by this historical charter.
At the college-level graduation ceremonies, many students will hear their names announced with a non-English title affixed; these are Latin honors. More specifically, the phrase “cum laude” — Latin for “with praise” or “with honor” — may sound as if it stems from a similar era as the cap and gown; rather, the honor was devised in 1872 at Harvard College as a distinction for the graduating class’ highest-ranked students. By 1880, three levels of distinction were variously awarded to students, the other two being magna cum laude (“with great praise”) and summa cum laude (“with greatest praise”).
Today, the colleges of the University set their own standards for how or whether Latin honors are awarded to graduating students. The College of LAS, for instance, issues cum laude status to the top 12% of its students by GPA; magna cum laude and summa cum laude are given respectively to the top 7% and 3%.
The College of Engineering, by contrast, does away with the Latin titles and competitive nature altogether. Instead, Engineering students are awarded honors, high honors or highest honors based on GPA and departmental recommendation.
“A student receives honors with a cumulative Illinois grade point average of at least 3.50 and high honors with at least a 3.80 grade point average at graduation,” according to a University engineering advising webpage. “Highest honors may be awarded to any student eligible for high honors upon recommendation of his or her department.”
The University also provides the unique Bronze Tablet honorary, which recognizes the top 3% of students from each college. Awardees are memorialized by name on large bronze plaques that hang in the Main Library hallways, with new additions sharing space with students tracing back to 1924.
Pomp and Circumstance
The 1901 composition by English composer Edward Elgar has become the universal theme song of American graduation, but its roots grow murkier as they are traced back to imperial Britain. “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D” got its name from a war imagery-filled excerpt in William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and the march was already a big hit among British people. Elgar was approached by soon-to-be king Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria, for the song to be played at his coronation.
For the big event, author A.C. Benson wrote lyrics to the march, in which he promoted national pride centered around the expansion of the British Empire. The march gained even greater popularity afterward and became an “unofficial national anthem” in England, as described by a Vox video on the subject. Its popularity persists to this day: A 2006 survey of English citizens found a majority preferred the march — named “Land of Hope and Glory,” when paired with Benson’s lyrics — over “God Save the Queen” as the English national anthem.
“Pomp and Circumstance” also gained popularity in the United States but in a very different fashion. In 1905, the song was played as Elgar received an honorary degree at the Yale University’s graduation, and the practice caught on across the country. In demand to popularity, the piece was even recorded in the first-ever session at Abbey Road Studios, of Beatles fame.
Today, what once was a military march brimming with British pride has become the slow yet triumphant backdrop to nearly every graduation in the United States, past and present.
If you would like to stand out from the crowd on May 11, then by all means, sing along to the chorus of “Pomp and Circumstance”:
“Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.”
Zack is a junior in Engineering.