Graduation Symbolism

I’m always struck by the ceremony of university commencements. Having recently participated in my last one (for myself), I thought it fitting to make a comment on the symbolism.

Universities are the pinnacle of higher education in the world. There is no next step, no next institution, beyond a university. A doctoral degree is the highest degree that a person can receive – anywhere in the world. Doctoral degrees can be academic/research (e.g., Ph.D.) or professional (e.g., M.D.). In order to receive a doctoral degree one has to go through all the preparatory stages of primary education and secondary education (although honorary degrees can be awarded to certain individuals). Then one generally has to earn a baccalaureate degree and be accepted into a graduate program. Many doctoral programs require students to earn master’s degrees during the path of completing the doctoral degree (in my case I did a master’s degree before starting my doctoral program). Each step along the path ensures that a candidate is qualified to pass by the sentinels guarding the way to the degree.

At a doctoral commencement ceremony, each person dresses in special robes. Much of the western world bases academic dress upon that which was done at Cambridge and Oxford (and at monasteries before that). Upon his or her head goes a mortarboard¬†or a doctor’s (Tudor) bonnet. There is a tassel that hangs down one side (those receiving undergraduate degrees start with the tassel on the right and then transfer it to the left side). At the ceremony, those receiving degrees have them conferred upon them (generally en masse) along with all the “rights, responsibilities, and privileges associated with the degree and office.” The person receiving the degree is escorted (again, at the doctoral level) by a mentor. This mentor helps place the hood over the head of the candidate. The hood drapes a bit like a sash, although it is directly derived from hoods monks wore and is thus reminiscent of a veil. After the hooding, the newly minted doctor is enters into the ranks of doctorhood by shaking the hands with university dignitaries.

Everywhere we look we see remnants of eternal truths. Some might say perversions of the truth; academia certainly is a false religion and priesthood to many. However, we can appreciate the symbolism and types and shadows.


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