Friday, February 10, 2006

Senioritis and Accomplishment

I think I'm tired of school.

I shouldn't be. I've recently been certified to graduate and I'm booked for the August 2006 commencement ceremony. I've ordered my cap, gown and hood (masters degree grads get a hood). I should be ecstatic and excited. Yet, I'm feeling spent and burned out wishing like anything I could put my PowerBook away for a month. A computer geek should never want to be away from their computer, but here I am anyway.

I can't dwell on this for too long. I'm not long on patience for whiners, and I try very hard not to be one (though my wife may disagree).

The reality I think I'm facing is that Capella University is saying "you're ready to graduate", but I haven't actually accomplished anything yet. My degree won't be conferred until the end of June, but I'm feeling like I'm done already. Yet, I know I have 4 months and 13 days of hard work left to finish (the last 12 weeks of which are my capstone which amounts to a masters thesis). This paradox is hard to reconcile in my mind. I probably should have simply held off on applying for graduation until next quarter at the earliest. Part of me keeps saying "you're done", but my rational mind says "you're close, but not there". In the end, I'll get the work done and I'll finish despite the conflict in my mind.

Its at moments like these that I wonder about the nature of accomplishment and our desire to celebrate it. We, rightly, celebrate many things in our culture. Births, marriages, historical events, and completion of a course of study are all things we justifiably celebrate. We even celebrate lives that have ended in our own ways. Our nation recently celebrated the revelation of the winner of our professional football season. We celebrate striving for excellence whether its on the athletic field or in the classroom. We award those who strive to be the best they can be in many other fields as well.

I've been learning about the history that is steeped into our commencement ceremonies. I did something similar when I got married. It's fascinating to see some of the symbolism and the meaning it conveys in either ceremony (weddings or graduations). Yet, that meaning is rarely emphasized or even mentioned. The gowns that masters and doctoral candidates wear at commencement are symbolic of the monastic traditions that modern academia shares its roots with. The expanded sleeves and hoods are likewise symbols of the practicality of the robes that the first academics wore. Larger sleeves were needed so that the wearer could carry books while keeping their hands in their sleeves to keep warm during winter. Hoods were worn because the classrooms of the earliest Universities were drafty places. The colors of the tassels, and hoods are also symbolic of the differences between our educations while the main aspect of our dress remains the same.

I've even learned that the mere fact that we celebrate the end of a course of study with a celebration is fairly unique to America (with the exception of Oxford University in England).

Many institutions in our society maintain rigid traditions that tell the story of our society. Yet, like in all societies, there always exists a vocal minority of people who desire to erode, degrade, and (if possible) eliminate tradition in any form.

Our public education system has done significant damage to the tradition of graduation by turning it into nothing more than an attendance award. We have so degraded what it means to be a high school graduate that the traditions of the ceremony hardly have any meaning. How can a student whose sole reason for being on the platform with the other graduates is a series of social promotions put on the garb so steeped in the traditions of men and women of science, literature, engineering, and the arts when the "graduate" has done nothing to earn it?

We further degrade the concept of graduation by having people (especially children) graduate from everything. Kindergarten, each of the numbered grades in elementary school, and dog obedience school are all just examples of the ridiculous manners by which we erode the notion of what it means to graduate. I work for a small University, and we've even had short graduation-like ceremonies to mark the completion of a one day training session for customer service. If our academic institutions won't hold sacred such traditions, who will? When every little task in our lives is elevated to a reason to celebrate, how can we differentiate between the mundane and the truly exceptional?

We live in a society desperately trying to find meaning or something to hold on to. We debate endlessly, and sometimes violently, about the role of government, the role of family, the role of community on our daily lives. We struggle to constantly define who we are as a culture. Yet, we continually diminish or neglect our own past as being irrelevant, or worse something to find nothing but fault in. We dress up like 13th-century monks at our graduation ceremonies and have no idea why. When history writes the story of our culture, what will it say? We surely aren't writing anything of value and preserving it for posterity. We report the days events via our various news outlets, but is that truly where our culture finds its meaning? How will people 1000 years from now have any idea about what it meant to be an American in the early 21st century? Perhaps its in our past that we will find our meaning, our common story. If it is, we should start clinging to our traditions and return the meaning to our ceremonies, traditions and celebrations. Its the only way of keeping our identity and preserving it for posterity.

So dig out your wedding dress or your graduation cap and gown and put them on from time to time. Talk to your kids about what those vestments mean. If you don't know what they mean, figure it out with your kids. Display your degrees and diplomas. Let your children see mommy or daddy's name on a piece of paper that is proudly displayed in your home. Explain with pride what those pieces of paper mean. These aren't just keys to a better economic future, they are windows into our past. A way of keeping the oldest of all historical archives, the oral tradition, a part of our daily lives. Lastly, when going through the ceremonies, don't just go through the motions. Experience the moment and savor it like a fine wine. Reflect on the meaning and how you are a part of perpetuating noble and proud institutions that define who we are much better than pop culture ever could.

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