…and why, specifically, are we looking at circumstance here?
I took part in the 2018 Spring Graduation festivities for the English Department and the university as a whole the other day, and after driving for six hours yesterday, I get to watch my eldest nephew graduate from high school today. It’s enough to make one step back and think about the importance of graduations and why we do what we do. It’s also an excuse to think about ways of doing it better for the sake of those who graduate after us.
First and foremost, though, we should remember that the silly robes and flat hats are medieval in origin. It’s worth looking into the subject of academic dress throughout the world, but most of what I know come from the big two British universities: Oxford and Cambridge, which were in turn adapted from the clerical robes used by faculty in medieval institutions of learning.
With that out of the way, I wanted to ask a different sort of question about the traditional cap and gown, specifically why high schools seem to think it’s good to have different colors for their men/boy/male graduates and their women/girl/female graduates? I’m kind of at a loss on this subject. To be fair, I didn’t say anything during my own high school graduation sometime in the last century, but I didn’t know any better at that point and I like to think that this is a question that reflects a change in the times as well as a change for the better in me.
Let me break down the way I see this question: instead of having a single color, you break out two colors along gender lines in a society that has repeatedly had to face the fact that gender is non-binary and performative. That means that you have to deal with the logistics of ordering two different colors of cap and two different colors of gown. It means that you have to ensure that people get what they should have, and that no one is offended if a mistake is made. You have to either coordinate carefully if you’re going to use those colors to do something special at the ceremony (enter in pairs, one of each color, or use the colors to spell out the school’s initials, etc.), or you have to deal with the fact that the graduates will look like so much static on a TV left on until the station goes off the air (yes, there are still a few of those around somewhere). You have to deal with the people who grump about being one color when they’d rather be the other, or you have to deal with people who grump about other differences between the caps and gowns. It just seems like it’s a lot of work.
The question, then, becomes one of “Why do we do this?” Oxford and Cambridge certainly didn’t do that, even when women were admitted into their scholarly ranks. Universities across the nation either use one color across the board for a degree, or they use color to differentiate the honors students from everyone else (Colorado State. for instance, does this). Therefore it’s not really tradition, or at least tradition handed down from the original practitioners of the graduation ritual. I honestly see no reason to maintain that practice, and I’m hoping that soon people will come around to the same conclusion. Indeed, I hope that, when I return for my younger nephew’s graduation from the same school in two years, that they’ve figured it out and fixed it.
I’m not holding my breath, though.