It’s that time of the year! May and June are known as the season of graduation – when most students leave high school or college and move on to another stage in their lives. Here’s a quick history of graduation ceremonies to ponder while you listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” at your next graduation event.
The origin of the graduation ceremony probably dates back to 1432, when Oxford University in England passed a statute requiring all “bachelors” to deliver a speech in Latin. The concept of receiving a degree for completing an established course of study, however, actually originated in Islamic culture. The earliest degrees were written on parchment (sheepskin), a tradition that continued at many colleges and universities until about a century ago.
Almost all commencement ceremonies continue the centuries-old tradition of wearing distinctive academic dress. This custom dates back to the Middle Ages (12th century England, specifically), when people dressed in accordance with their rank in society (as well as their professional occupations). Since the clergy was the literate class during that period, today’s academic costume, which is used both at American and European high schools, colleges, and universities, originates from these Medieval clerical robes.
At most colleges and universities bachelor’s and master’s degree holders wear plain black (or other solid color) gowns, along with black mortarboards (caps) – a custom followed by most high school graduations. The mortarboard’s tassel indicates the wearer’s academic degree. The tassel is usually to be worn on the right before receiving a diploma. Once the diploma is received, or before the graduate steps off the stage, the tassel is to be switched to the left side. This act is meant to signify the progression from one stage of life to the next.