Congratulations Class of 2012!

Are you graduating this year? Or is your niece, brother, cousin, or aunt graduating? This is the season of academic achievement and celebration. We wanted to offer our congratulations to all of you (and your family and friends) who are graduating this year and commencing the rest of your careers.

In this season, we were also wondering, where do graduation traditions come from? Why are there weird hats and even weirder robes?

Many academic traditions originate in the Catholic Church. During the Middle Ages, the church was the sole institution of learning. The university, as we know it, started in the 1000s and 1100s in Europe, born from the monastic schools of the era. The word “university” is actually a back formation of the longer Latin phrase: universitas magistrorum et scolarium. What does that mean? It literally meant “community of masters and scholars”. It was shortened in the 1300s to “universitas” and became synonymous with institutions of higher learning.

Where do the crazy hats come from? The square cap that graduates wear is most likely modeled on the biretta, an Italian cap worn by Catholic clerics with four stiff corners. The biretta became standard for clergy in the 1300s and is still worn by Catholic cardinals. Today the secular equivalent that you see adorning the heads of graduates is called a mortarboard. The term was first used in English in the 1850s. Before that, “mortarboard” referred to a flat board that carried mortar, a paste-like material of sand, lime and water, which was hard when dried. The hats may have resembled mortarboards, so the name stuck.

The robes that students and faculty wear were modeled on priests’ traditional robes. Students once wore their robes to all classes and lectures (like Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts). Today robes are reserved for academic occasions, like graduations, but they still reflect particular academic achievements. For example, undergraduates will typically wear simple robes in the school color while doctoral candidates (and any Ph.D.s participating in the ceremony, like professors and deans) wear more elaborate robes with puffy sleeves and black hoods attached. Like military regalia, the cords and stoles worn by academics represent different achievements.

At many colleges, high-profile figures give a “commencement address”. Graduations are also called commencements because they are commencing (or beginning) their careers. The term commencement has referred to graduation festivities since the late 1300s – almost as long as the university itself.

Have you attended any graduations this year? What do you think of the academic traditions?

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