Last week we had our annual graduation ceremony here in Sheffield where we get to see our students off, wish them well and wear ridiculous robes inspired by medieval priests. I’m almost ashamed to say it but I love the pomp and pageantry of a good graduation ceremony: the robes, the processions, the trumpets. Okay so in England I have to sit – I mean stand – through the English national anthem, something that doesn’t really sit right with an Irish person but I’m a guest in their country so I’ll respect their ways. As long as they don’t expect me to sing it. My mother once told me of various Irish patriots who, when required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown in order to take up their seats as MPs in the British parliament, would cross their fingers so that they could avoid any crises of conscience or general feelings of dirtiness afterwards. Childish? Perhaps, but the rebel in me likes it.
I also like the peacock-like strutting and suspicious sideways glances you get from some academics as they eye up your robes, trying to figure out where you got your PhD and whether your robes are nicer than theirs. Big-headed as it is, I know my DCU robes were nicer than most of the other doctoral robes there although one colleague invariably greets me as d’Artagnan when he sees me. I suppose the fact that I’ve been experimenting with a musketeer-style beard doesn’t help matters. The only robes I have seen that could be regarded as nicer or at least as nice as DCU robes are the Sorbonne (think medieval judge with an octagonal hat) and possibly Berkeley (think P-Diddy in black and purple velour). Cambridge’s robes wouldn’t look out of place in an old-fashioned vampire film but I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing.
But what struck me about this graduation was the number of people who didn’t turn up to collect their parchment at the ceremony. I’ve noticed this more so in England than in Ireland and it has become much more noticeable of late. In some departments, I noticed that around a third of the graduands were conferred in absentia. Even more baffling was the number of PhDs who didn’t bother turning up. I know that, particularly in the case of overseas students, the expense of travelling across the world to collect a piece of paper which would cost a fiver to post is prohibitive, but people based at least within a two-hour flight of Sheffield could turn up, surely.
Although it seems nearly everyone has a degree or two these days, I still think getting a degree is something to be proud of and it’s definitely something to celebrate. I wonder whether a person who doesn’t recognise this really appreciates the opportunity afforded them and whether they really appreciate the value of university study. It’s not just about the bit of paper that lets you put BA, MA or MSc after your name so that you can get a pay-rise. It’s about doing something worthwhile, something that challenges you and ultimately something that, win, lose or draw, improves you in some way.
Even though education sometimes seems to be all about the money these days, an education is still a privilege, one that not everyone gets. Deep down, I find it hard not to think of people who couldn’t be bothered turning up (as opposed to those who genuinely can’t make it) as being ever so slightly disrespectful.
Another thing that struck me about graduations here in Sheffield is that the speeches made by the chancellor, or whoever happens to be representing him at a particular ceremony, are always nice, safe and uncontroversial. He talks about the university and how great it is, the value of an education, the tremendous achievement and hard work put in by students. Ceremonies always finish off with a set-piece where graduates are asked to stand up, turn around and applaud their friends and families in the audience to thank them for their support. Nothing wrong with that at all you say but my in own alma mater, under two different presidents – Danny O’Hare and Ferdinand von Prondzynski – graduation speeches usually contain political commentary and, where appropriate, criticism of government policy as it affects education or employment.
During his tenure it seemed that pretty much every one of Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s graduation speeches was reported in the Irish press. Some people might think that this is an abuse of power and that a graduation ceremony should be a happy time and that nobody should rock the boat, but having heard and read several of these speeches, I think it’s highly appropriate. I like the idea of the head of a university addressing the next generation of professionals, leaders, parents, politicians, tax payers etc. one last time and sending them on their way with the embers of a fire in their bellies which will hopefully preserve the spirit of questioning, challenging and thinking which a university education tries to instill in students. Instead of bland congratulations and not-so-subtle hints at donations when they make their fortunes, students are made to realise that the end of their studies doesn’t mark the end of thinking. Then again, maybe I just like trouble-makers who rock the boat.
Oh, and before you ask, I don’t have any pictures of me in my robes!