Wednesday, 30 April 2014


So, I was going to leave talking about graduation ceremonies and why I don't like them until I was due to graduate (which is to say, July), but then I realised that putting up a blog post saying GRADUATION IS BAD AND YOU SHOULDN'T GO right as people are actually graduating might be construed as sneering or otherwise unpleasant. So, you get it now instead ;)

I will not be attending my PhD graduation, and there are several reasons for this, most of which are personal to me. At least one is a more general criticism of the modern style of ceremony, and I'll get to that in a minute, but I want to start by saying this: your graduation is a celebration of your achievement, and if you want to celebrate your achievement that way, go to.

In some ways, the biggest reason I'm not going to my graduation (and that I didn't go to my undergrad ceremony either) is that I don't like wearing a suit and generally dislike formal celebrations anyway. That's not how I prefer to have my achievements celebrated. Particularly with something as individual and niche as a PhD, I found a much more satisfying celebration to be going to lunch after my final examination with my two examiners and my supervisor. Your mileage may vary.

The big problem I see with the modern graduation ceremony, particularly in evidence during my MA graduation (the only one I've actually attended), is the factory-assembly-line quality of it. Graduands queue up at one side of the stage, are released one at a time to walk across, receive their handshake and their stamp of approval, and disappear again, now certified graduates. At my MA graduation, the presiding university official (who was some sort of deputy-pro-vice-mini-chancellor) hadn't even bothered to learn his 'I admit you to the degree of...' lines and was reading them from a card cupped in the palm of his hand.

If this sounds a little bit Marxist, it's fair to say that it probably is. This is about as close as I get to true Marxism. I'm not sure I buy the line that all our systems of formal education have been designed to stamp out good capitalist workers, but I certainly felt that way as I stood in my prescribed uniform (which was given one last check-over before I was allowed onto the stage) and marched to the precisely-calculated script and blocking that would get two hundred students through the ceremony in the allotted two hours (or whatever the numbers were).

And it's particularly galling to see this at a university level. University is supposed to be about education that allows and encourages people to flourish in their own right and way. It's about individual effort, innovation and thought. It shouldn't just be viewed as a 'better job ticket' (particularly since, these days, there are so few graduate jobs that it really isn't a better job ticket). There should be more to celebrating a degree than just a handshake and a certificate.

I would much prefer graduation ceremonies to be smaller, maybe having each department or even each course have its own small ceremony. This way, graduands would be celebrated by people who knew them, knew the character and value of their achievements, and understood their work. Graduates might even be given the chance to speak, briefly, about their university experiences both in and out of the classroom. Perhaps it would cost too much money (though universities must spend quite a lot on graduation as it is), but that's the kind of graduation I'd be interested in going to.

Again, though, these are just my feelings on the matter, and because I hate formal celebrations and formal wear, there's nothing for me in the other column. Ultimately, this is an aesthetic problem - a problem of appearance, style and manner - rather than an ethical one. Going to a graduation ceremony doesn't endorse the industrialisation of universities, necessarily. It just resembles it, and that's what I don't like.

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