What with graduation ceremony season upon us, and a good friend graduating this morning from Georgetown, I cannot help but reflect on the various graduation ceremonies I have attended or participated in over the years. My Georgetown graduation was very memorable, in part because I eschewed trooping in for my two graduate degree commencements. There didn’t seem much point in remaining in South Bend or in London, after finding out I would get my respective degrees.
Recently two friends had their Ph.D. ceremony from the same faculty where one decided to purchase his gown, since he will be a professor starting this autumn at an important Midwestern university. For my undergraduate commencement, we all had to buy rather than rent our kit, but truthfully the quality was a bit more disposable. My silks (in reality polyester, natch) and mortar board are still lying around Chez Pere somewhere.
In the United States undergraduates often decorate their mortar board, that medieval flat-topped hat traditionally associated with scholars, and for my Georgetown graduation I decided to do the same. Atop my cap I used colored masking tape to create the Senyera, the gold-and-red-striped flag of Catalonia. I had always intended to do so, years before I actually graduated, but the choice was to be all the more interesting since the King and Queen of Spain were to be our commencement speakers. The reason for their attendance was that their son Felipe, Prince of Asturias, was receiving his Master’s from the School of Foreign Service at the same time that I was earning my Bachelor’s.
Our ceremony on Healy Lawn was the first of the day, so it was still reasonably cool and not overly humid. After marching in and being seated, I realized that not only were King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, and Prince Felipe in attendance, but also both of the Prince’s sisters, the Infanta Elena and the Infanta Cristina, and their husbands. By pure luck, if one can call it that, I was seated very close to them, so that if they had looked in my direction, they could not help but see the Catalan flag on the back of my head.
When the time came and my name was called, I stood up and approached the dais to receive my diploma. I distinctly saw/heard Jaime de Marichalar, Duke of Lugo (the Infanta Cristina’s then-husband, whom she has since divorced) lean over to his wife and say in Castilian, in a stage whisper, “What is THAT?!” Clearly he had caught a glimpse of my hat decoration, and it made my grin from ear to ear.
I received my diploma from the Dean, and moved down the receiving line to the King (the Queen remained seated away from the receiving line.) He extended his hand, which I took, and I bowed my head – not because I like to make diplomatic a faux pas like a certain resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW does, but because I wanted the King to see the back of my hat. I heard him laugh, and as I raised my head he was still laughing. “Very good!” he said in Castilian. I then moved down the line to Father O’Donovan, then-President of the University, who took my hand with a chuckle and said, “Well, you win the prize for the best ethnic mortarboard today.”
As enjoyable as the experience was, wearing medieval dress in a country founded during the Age of Enlightenment has always struck me as silly. While we may have inherited significant aspects of our culture from Great Britain, we at least have had the sense to dispense with British tradition when pointless or impractical, such as in the practice of having lawyers wear wigs and robes to court. No doubt the manufacturers of caps and gowns, as well as the more reactionary among my readers, will decry my saying so, but it does seem to me that the tradition of dressing up in such things for graduation – which is essentially a secular self-congratulation party – is nothing more than a racket, and a rather tiresome and pointless one at that.