virtual children by Scott Warnock

Graduations stink – admit it! – but could be better

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I probably shouldn’t say this because of my chosen path in life, which includes being a parent, educator, and school board member, but I hate graduation ceremonies, or as they are known in a doublespeak kind of way,  commencements. And you probably do too — admit it!

You sit in a stuffy, crowded room-gym. You wait an interminable amount of time while seated in an uncomfortable chair. You look right: That person is close. You look left: Same. You listen to clichéd speeches about the beginning of success — if the sound system is up to the task.

Note that I was a student for 24 years, so I was the graduate in my share of graduations. It was like the above. Even though I was hell on wheels in grammar school and probably should have been in juvey, there was still no doubt I was gonna get my 8th-grade “diploma.” Then, despite my terrible senior year performance, I still wasn’t all giddy when I completed high school – from the day I entered, I expected to graduate.

Onto college. I got way more serious about school freshman year, but not because of graduation doubt. Graduation day, I was patiently waiting at the back of the line at Rutgers Camden – I’m a “W,” remember — when a family member, himself bored with the whole thing, went looking for me and was startled to see me sipping a bottle of $1.15 Night Train to kill time. My years of “fortified wine” might not have predicted my magna cum laude status, but I knew I’d get through.

Even my MA was again a degree I never doubted. That final lap, the PhD, was something I wasn’t sure I’d finish, but even then I only walked at graduation for my family. I had two kids at the time, and neither of them remember it. I don’t have the heart to ask my wife if she did.

Yeah, I know, I’m a privileged person in 2016 America – through nothing but luck on my part – but I think the ceremony and pomp of graduation has always been overblown.

Let’s try something different.

First, graduations should be quicker. All audience members are there to see one three-second moment: Their graduate get his/her name called. Reduce the gaps. One illustrious guy at Drexel has this right. He can read 15 names a minute and is the four-time defending champ of name reading. Does this detract from the experience? No! You don’t need a solemn pause so your graduate can moonwalk or try an ill-fated back-flip. You follow your graduate’s path across the stage no matter who else is up there. There could be a bunch of guys dressed in purple plate mail juggling tangerines and you wouldn’t notice – it’s kind of like the Simons-Chabris selective attention test: No one’s noticing that woman in a gorilla suit.

Speed will mean less sitting. Sitting is bad for you, many say, yet graduations can run three, four, or more hours. When someone says, “This graduation is killing me,” they may be telling the truth.

Tradition be darned. Why wear academicals, a square hat that isn’t practical in any other setting and a big old robe? What good is a tradition no one understands? — Dostoevsky said, “The tradition is still fresh though it is hard to believe in it.”  So ditch the gowns. How about something practical that people could actually wear to represent their institution later, like an alumni baseball cap and a jacket, sweater, or bathrobe? (Admittedly, as an academic, I have worn my PhD robes about 30 times, not counting the time I dressed as a graduate of clown college one Halloween.)

I suppose you have to have a graduation speaker, but even some high-level speakers can really lay an egg when faced with the graduation speech. What’s left to be said?: Go forth, flourish, reproduce your genius, etc. A three-minute autobiography is all we need, because people’s own individual narratives are the main take-home. We can put a couple bouncers — c’mon, in bathrobes! — in the front row tapping their watches to keep things moving along.

All graduate groups should also have to give something back. I was talking to a wise friend this weekend, at a cocktail party, of course, who said, “At graduations, you take something with you, but you should really leave something behind.” Graduates should all have, as part of completing their degree, left something momentous behind. Something that they will be remembered for. And every single one of them has to work on it.

Finally, I really think we need to reverse the whole event. Graduation, to paraphrase a saying, is wasted on the graduates. The concept should happen earlier for students. Many graduations are coupled with awards, and, of course, it’s nice to recognize success, but a few people eat up all the awards. The 97% are like, “Damn, I shoulda done more!” Have a kind of reverse graduation freshman year to shake up the laggards and dolts.

Pomp and circumstance. You can’t have both. In the interest of time, in the interest of reasonable formality, one must go. I’ll take pomp every time, if only ’cause it’s shorter.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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One Response to “Graduations stink – admit it! – but could be better”

  1. I can see this article got the masses enthused.
    How about something on Brexit – that will get them talking!
    At least half of your audience is still reading….

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