Having just had the delightful pleasure of being the proud parents of a recent college graduate, I was curious to know about some of the traditions we have just participated in at the commencement exercises. Therefore, in honor of this momentous occasion, I have uncovered a bit of graduation trivia with which you can impress your friends and family at your next graduation event.
Why do graduates throw their caps in the air to celebrate? This tradition traces its roots back to the commencement exercises of the United States Naval Academy class of nineteen twelve. Reportedly, this year was the first time the Navy presented their newly commissioned graduates their officer’s hats at graduation. With great appreciation, the grads began tossing their midshipman’s caps high into the air to demonstrate their joy. The news of this exuberant celebration spread and the tradition caught on among graduates of all schools. The practice is often discouraged however due to the danger involved in the unfettered release of these projectiles. While there have been some eye injuries and stitches reported over time due to the tossing of the caps, still many students participate in this traditional display.
Speaking of the mortarboard, why are the hats that graduates wear called that anyway? The name has come from the bricklayer trade and hearkens to the shape of the hawk a mason uses to hold the mortar as he sets his bricks in the structure. The hawk is a flat board with a handle underneath and the flat top of the graduate’s cap takes its nickname from one of this traditional trade’s most important tools.
Why are graduates of a four year course of studies awarded a Bachelor’s degree? The word Bachelor comes from the two Latin words 1) Bacca – a berry and 2) Laureus – the bay laurel. During the Renaissance period, individuals who received a completed degree of higher education were decorated with laurel branches filled with berries upon passing their final exams. This usage has translated into the conferring of the completed degree for undergraduates in the term Bachelor’s Degree. In addition, the Baccalaureate service which High School students often attend comes from this terminology as well. Tracing its roots all the way back to Medieval England, Oxford University graduates were required as part of their graduation to each deliver a sermon in Latin before being approved for commencement. Today’s Baccalaureate services are generally optional and the students are instead invited to listen to a religious presentation, not deliver one.
Why does every Graduation ceremony begin with the same music? The familiar tune you hear being played several times as the graduates process into the venue is called “Pomp and Circumstance.” This song was written as a piece in a military march composed by Sir Edward Elgar in nineteen-o-one. When Sir Edward was invited to travel from England for Yale University’s 1905 Graduation ceremony to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the prestigious school, Yale commissioned the New Haven Symphony Orchestra to play this now famous piece in honor of their guest. Again, the tune gained great popularity until now it is the default processional hymn for nearly all commencement exercises.
So what is an honorary degree anyhow? The honorary degree is a wholly symbolic conferring of a title upon an individual who has done no academic work normally required to earn such an honor. Throughout history the practice of bestowing honorary degrees upon dignitaries and public figures was often a political gesture, designed to ingratiate the recipient towards the viewpoint of the institution offering the degree. Historically some famous people who have been recipients of honorary degrees include Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham and Kermit the Frog.
This short article in no way covers the extent of all graduation traditions which families across the country are participating in during this season. But maybe I’ve given you some context for a few of the more familiar elements which you may have the pleasure of enjoying with a new appreciation very soon. And to all the students moving on to the next adventure, Happy Graduation!