Monday, May 14, 2007

"All rights and privileges appertaining thereto": Commencement and the decline of Grand Narratives

Steve Jobs, who gave the 2005 commencement address at Stanford. For better or for worse, he is his own Grand Narrative.

My fellow blogger Belle Lettre of Law and Letters fame graduated from "Liberal Law School" yesterday. Sort of. She decided for various reasons to witness this commencement as a spectator. Reading her post this morning led me to think about this past Saturday's commencement at my college that, as a faculty member, I was both spectator of and participant in.

What prompts this post, though, was this little off-hand remark by Ms. Lettre:

It also struck me how many people's families will travel to go to these ceremonies. They must mean something, these rituals and rites of passage.

Coming as it did after her comparing/contrasting differences in ceremonies she has been part of before and that she approves/disapproves of, I must admit that this caught me by surprise.

I happen to like commencement, but I'm not attaching any particular virtue to that. It does give me a chance, though, to gas on for a bit about Grand Narratives generally.

Full disclosure: Ms. Lettre's post is by no means the first time I've encountered detachment in others regarding commencement. The first time, I remember being dumbfounded when a colleague at my previous school told me that he had never attended his commencements, not even for the awarding of his PhD; I am married to a woman who herself didn't attend her college commencement; most of my colleagues--at least the ones who say anything--would prefer not to be bothered and would not be present if commencement were not considered a work day in our contracts. Me, though, I'd be there anyway, even if I still had papers to read and grades to average waiting for me at home (which I did).

We have no secular rites of passage anymore, apart from commencement. Birthdays and New Year's Day are foisted upon us; they are literally as inevitable as the physics that govern the motion of the planets and so, even if we don't celebrate them, we have no choice but to acknowledge them. Commencement, though, is different: it has the edge to it of celebrating a choice freely made, one's submission to a contract whose terms one doesn't set, the acknowledgment of the completion of that contract, and the giddy anxiety of the look ahead to a future that that contract's completion prepares one for.

I know the realities, though. I graduated from high school in 1980, a time, amazing to think back on nowadays, when a high school diploma still had some real-world heft to it. As we know, those days are long gone . . . and in many disciplines, the BA and BS are losing their value except as means to the ends of a) the sort of career advancement that requires just any old college degree; or b) gaining permission to apply for grad school or professional school.

It's in facing these facts and simultaneously saying without fear of contradiction that I find meaning and value in commencement that we see how Grand Narratives function. Yes: Commencement has meaning and value only to the extent that I and others assign it that value. But I say it has those qualities because I know and believe that that value exists apart from my mere say-so. I have seen too many people's lives transformed (including my own) by this thing called Education to deny its value, even though I know also of too many people, many far more deserving than I, for whom all that Education hasn't panned out in real-world terms.

Like all Grand Narratives, Commencement codifies and celebrates promise, in the sense of opportunity and hope. No matter how we think of Grand Narratives, I don't think I know of anyone who truly lives without their supposed illusions. All the more reason, I figure, to be part of affirming the hope that this one remaining secular rite of passage codifies.


Anonymous said...

I denied my mother the opportunity to see me graduate from college in August 1961 in Texas because that summer commencement was second class compared to the May event and it was hotternhell. I had my husband and children with me when I later received my Master's degree, and it was a more significant accomplishment. I have loved going to see others, especially students who are the first in their family to obtain a college degree. It does still mean something in some cirles, though not so much where affluence can make it just something you must do to obtain status within your community.

Camille said...

Thanks for linking to that interesting wiki article on Grand Narratives. I hear that term a lot, and I always assumed I knew what it meant, but now the definition is clearer in my mind.

Pam said...

I went to my undergraduate commencement ceremony (although quite hungover, I attended nonetheless). But I did not attend commencement for my MS or PhD degrees - and at the time, didn't think for a moment that I'd regret not participating. But now that I have my own own research laboratory and mentor students - I get a thrill out of attending the graduation ceremonies of my own graduate students. We have a very nice hooding ceremony, where the graduate advisor actually gets up and says a few words about their student - and I find it really touching. There's a ritual to it that I have grown attached to it, and I've been fortunate to have positive relationships with my students - I like acknowledging the accomplishment in that way.