Having been (reasonably) happily married for 50 years, I feel no compulsion to wax poetic about the power of love, except to say that I am still in love with Bonnie, my wife, and love my children and grandchildren. Prom, other than seeing lots of stories about “promposals” and cautionary news coverage intended to reduce the amount of carnage on the roads as young people (who KNOW that they will never be harmed) engage in unwise behaviors before, during and/or after the “biggest night of their life,” isn’t something of a great deal of concern to me at the moment (although I expect to have some concerns on this score over my grandchildren fairly soon).
Then, there are graduation ceremonies. As I think I have said before, I’ve been to a LOT of such affairs in the course of my career (at least one every year at Western, and multiple times a year during the four years that I was Chair of the Faculty). It isn’t too much to say that they don’t seem to stand out as highly significant events in most people’s minds. I mean, really, do any of us actually remember what the commencement speaker had to say at our own graduation(s)? I doubt it. Yet such addresses are, in fact, the model and culmination of our entire educational system, which is based on the idea that younger people can (and should) learn from the advice (and wisdom?) of older (wiser, more experienced) ones. Who knows? It might even work that way! But, I’m not sure that therein lies the real value of such occasions. After all, if the “young” person hasn’t acquired whatever we might call her/his appropriate learning in the time leading up to this occasion, I find it highly unlikely that his/her education is going to be materially enhanced by someone speaking for a few minutes at a commencement ceremony.
Yes, occasionally we do hear of a particularly interesting commencement address, most often, it seems, from somewhat unlikely sources. I’ve mentioned a couple of such speeches, which I found unusually interesting in post #29 in the archives of this blog. It seems to me that neither Steve Jobs nor J.K. Rowling would be obvious choices to be the honored speaker at a commencement, although I’m not sure why. And, in fact, they did come up with interesting variations on the “standard” commencement advice one comes to expect on such occasions. But, of course, this sort of advice really isn’t the reason for such ceremonies, at all; it’s just an expected tradition!
No, the real point of commencement ceremonies is the ceremony itself. It’s a ritual, a rite of passage. Actually, such ceremonies probably come from the same root sources as the “dubbing” of a knight, the ordination of a priest, the initiation into membership, the ritual of Baptism, First Communion, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Marriage and other sacramental acts, etc. The comparison to religious rituals seems pretty obvious since virtually all education in Western civilization was heavily influenced (even controlled) by religion, mostly Christianity, for a long time, but most (all?) societies seem to have parallel rites of passage.
My point here, perhaps rather unobviously, is that commencement is, in essence, THEATRE, just like all of the other ritual acts which have been mentioned and a good many more. It is a performance engaged in for the purpose of announcing and celebrating a change of state on the part of the participants. It is an “adulthood,” or “initiation” ritual similar to those engaged in in many, perhaps most (all?), societies. It is a ritualistic passage into the ranks of the “educated,” whatever that means.
Of course, such ceremonies don’t actually change anything, but they are symbolic acts which can have considerable power for those engaged in them. I remember that when I completed my doctoral oral exams, one of the first people I ran into in the Drama building at the University of Georgia was Dr. Gerald Kahan, who had been one of my professors. He asked my how the exam had gone and I replied something like “Well, Dr. Kahan, I passed.” He replied, “Now you can call me Gerry.” To me, that was significant. It meant that I had now been accepted as a colleague by someone whom I respected. To me, that was, perhaps, as important as any commencement ceremony. It forced me to think a bit about having achieved something of significance.
My point here is that one should not look at such things as simply a silly, old-fashioned, time-wasting requirement, but as a theatrical opportunity; an excuse to put on the ceremonial costume, preform the ritualistic acts and engage in the theatre which marks the end of another academic year and the movement of another class into the ranks of the “graduated.” As a theatre person, I don’t think this is a bad thing, although I do wish that there were more interesting commencement speeches more frequently.
Still, the THEATRE of Commencement is important and should be a cause for celebration as we mark the passing of another milestone in the life of our society; the passage, and welcoming, of another group into a new stage of life and membership in a different part of our group. That, at least to me, is a significant part of what theatre is all about, and, as a theatre person, I celebrate it.